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How Should the Portland Timbers Use a Healthy Diego Valeri?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


What a difference one month can make. On May 23rd, the Portland Timbers sat at the bottom of the Western Conference standings after back-to-back losses to Houston and Toronto. Four weeks and four consecutive wins later, those same Timbers now find themselves in third place in the west, and only four points behind rival Seattle Sounders for the top spot after Saturday's 2-0 defeat of the Houston Dynamo in the friendly confines of Providence Park. 

Houston looked to have struck first off a corner in the 15th minute when Raul Rodriguez cooly hit the  past Adam Kwarasey, but the referee's whistle blew for a very questionable obstruction call and the Timbers were saved from the early deficit. Portland then struck in the 34th minute after Maximiliano Urruti headed home a perfect free kick from Jorge Villafaña. Gastón Fernández added a second for Portland from the penalty spot in the 61st minute, creating the final scoreline of 2-0.

It was entirely appropriate that Fernández and Urruti were the two goal scorers for the Timbers, as it was their insertion into the starting lineup against D.C. United that sparked the winning streak that is now the longest in the Timbers' MLS history. In each of their last three games, Portland has scored two goals; a number the Timbers failed to reach in 10 out of their first 13 games this season. With the kind of defense Kawarsey and his defenders have been playing all year long combined with the sudden spark found by the Timbers attack, Portland is finally starting to resemble the team that Caleb Porter believed he could have when the season began. 

But Coach Porter still has questions about his Portland squad, and there are no easy, obvious answers. First, and most importantly: what does Porter do with his lineup when Diego Valeri is fully healthy? Valeri has been battling injuries all season long, but seems to be nearly recovered from the sprained ankle that has kept him out of the last four matches. Valeri came on as a substitute in the 72nd minute for Fernández and looked fresh and crisp with his movement and passing. While Portland's attack has improved dramatically since Valeri was lost, there is no question that he remains the Timbers' most creative and technically proficient player, and needs to be in the starting lineup as soon as he is fit to do so. 

The simplest answer is the move that Caleb Porter has made in the past, and will more than likely employ again: maintain the 4-2-3-1 formation, replace Fernández with Valeri, and hope that the attack keeps right up with where it has been these last few games. Given the formation and style that Coach Porter has favored in the past, this is not only the most likely option, it's really the only realistic option. But this option also breaks up the Urruti-Fernández pairing that has had obvious chemistry and has led to chances and goals for Portland when both have, until recently, been hard to come by.

There's another move available to Porter; one that carries far more risk, but would put the Timbers' four most creative attackers on the field together: replace Rodney Wallace with Valeri. Wallace currently plays a left midfield/left wing position in Porter's offense, and his primary role is to use his speed to beat defenders on the flanks and whip balls in on the cross. While Valeri possesses nowhere near the speed of a Wallace, his creativity and skill on the ball could more than make up for that loss. With this change, the Timbers would field a starting attacking lineup of  Urruti, Fernández, Valeri, and Darlington Nagbe – all four more than capable of winning one-on-one battles, slotting in a creative pass, or finishing with a strike from anywhere near the box. 

This lineup would also put all three Argentines on the field together, maintaining the chemistry Urruti and Fernández obviously have while adding Valeri's prodigious skill and talent to the mixture. Additionally, this lineup would almost certainly be more free-flowing than any other Portland has deployed in the past, with all four players capable of drifting to any other position in the attack with ease. With Nagbe and Fernández remaining on the field, Portland's overall team speed would not suffer dramatically, and Villafaña has proven time and again his willingness to use his speed to push the attack from the left flank if the situation calls for it. 

A healthy Diego Valeri is, without doubt, a positive development for the Timbers and their long-term prospects for this season. But the lineup choices Coach Porter makes in choosing how best to deploy him will tell us a great deal about how he views his team and players, and whether he truly feels the Urruti/Fernández connection is one worth attempting to build on.

Portland has had a remarkable month thus far, but June's greatest challenge still lies in front of them with a double-game week coming up. The week begins on Wednesday with a road trip to Los Angeles to face the defending-champion Galaxy, and concludes four days later as the Timbers host their hated rivals from the north, Seattle Sounders, in a prime-time match-up broadcast nationally on Fox Sports. 

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


Related Slideshow: Oregon’s 15 Hottest Athletes

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Alex Morgan, 25, is a forward for the Portland Thorns. She recently signed with the club in January of 2013 after playing for the Western New York Flash and the Seattle Sounders. She rose to prominence because of her success playing for the United States women’s national soccer team. Morgan was the youngest player to represent the U.S. during the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. She will once again represent team USA this summer as they prepare to head off to Canada for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.


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Kaylyn Kyle, 26, is a Canadian soccer player who currently plays for the Portland Thorns. She is also a member of the Canadian women’s national team. Kyle was part of the 2012 Canadian national team that defeated France in the bronze medal game. She is also an ambassador for, Right To Play, which is an organization dedicated to using soccer as a resource to educate and empower children from disadvantaged communities.


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Photo credit: via Oregon Football's Facebook page

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