Three key points about Portland Timbers vs. NYCFC | MLS Now


Up first, a quick recap of Pick 'Em. Home teams went 6-1-2 last weekend, which would usually mean a 6-3 record for me. However, I picked Portland to win on the road at Vancouver... and they lost. Then I forgot to make picks for the midweek slate -- home teams went 4-0-1 -- which means I'll give myself credit for a 4-1 record (when I forget to make a pick it defaults to "home team wins").

Thus far in 2016, the home team has won 55 of 101 games, which is a high percentage even in MLS. I've "correctly picked" 54 of 101 games so far, but in reality I'm 0-1 when I don't pick the home team to win.

Here are my picks for the weekend:

  • RBNY go on the road and get 3 points at D.C.
  • The Impact defeat Philly
  • Columbus top Colorado
  • New England beat Chicago
  • Toronto FC beat Vancouver
  • RSL -- who usually struggle in Texas -- get a point at Houston
  • Dallas get all 3 points vs. Seattle
  • Sporting KC finally end their winless skid against Orlando City
  • Portland dispatch visiting NYCFC

I'm living on the edge with two non-home-team picks, including Friday night's rivalry game when RBNY pay a visit to D.C. (7 pm ET; UniMas). I'm far from confident about this one -- RBNY are still leaving space for teams to counter into, and their sloppiness with the ball (relatively speaking) has made them fragile vs. opportunistic teams.

But I think the injuries to Chris Rolfe and Fabian Espindola make United way less clever and and opportunistic. Turnovers aren't as deadly when those two guys aren't out there at peak fitness, getting D.C. into transition with a single touch. RBNY meanwhile have rediscovered themselves over the past month, thanks largely to the play of Sacha Kljestan.

The other non-home-team pick is RSL getting a point in Houston on Saturday (8:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE). I suspect Javier Morales will find enough time and space on the ball to pick the Dynamo defense apart at least once.

  • Update: It turns out, United were opportunistic against a sluggish Red Bulls defense, winning the 2-0 result quite comfortably.

Onto the rest of the games...


Things haven't changed all that much for FC Dallas since last year's Western Conference semifinals, which they won 4-2 on PKs after a 3-3 aggregate, two-legged draw. Things have changed quite a bit, meanwhile, for the then-vanquished Seattle Sounders.

Seattle sold off their best player (Obafemi Martins), reconstructed the midfield, and signed Jordan Morris to be... well, an attacker at first. They had him playing on the right wing of a 4-3-3 to start the year, and while he added value thanks to his speed and willingness to run off the back shoulder of the defense, he was clearly something less than 100% comfortable. Over the past month Seattle have switched back to a hybrid 4-4-2 with Morris acting basically as a fulltime center forward, and now he's found real, repeatable success.

Here is Seattle's network passing graph from last weekend's 2-0 win over the Quakes:

This is created using Opta data. Each circle represents a player's aggregate position on the field, while the thickness of the lines represents the number of passes exchanged between any two players. You can see that Morris (#13) is high and central, and his most frequent passing partner is fellow forward Clint Dempsey (#2), which isn't all that different from years past for the Sounders. Much of their success since 2013 was built upon the ability of Martins and Dempsey to combine successfully even when going 2-v-4 or 2-v-5.

Morris isn't that kind of player, though -- his vision is good and improving, but he's not Oba. Instead he brings value by pushing the opposing backline deeper with his speed and willingness to make simple but aggressive runs. That in turn clears out space for Dempsey, and also shifts the field so that starting left midfielder Herculez Gomez (#9) is invited to pinch inside and get on the ball.

So think of it like this: Martins used to add value by dropping back towards the ball and becoming a fulcrum for the rest of the Seattle players to work off of. Morris adds value by moving away from the ball, and forcing the defense to spread out.

It's actually a drastic change and an example of how what looks like the same formation on paper ends up being much different on grass (or turf). Expect Dallas to understand that much when the Sounders come calling on Saturday night (9 pm ET; MLS LIVE).

I'll also be watching: Where's Mauro Diaz getting on the ball? He created a ton of chances from Zone 14 against the Timbers on Wednesday night, and the Sounders can't afford to give him so much room.

Shut The Door

On April 9 Sporting KC started off a 12-games-in-54-days journey with a 2-0 win over the Red Bulls. In the five weeks since then they've gone 0-5-2 and dropped from first to seventh in the Western Conference. In the process they've lost multiple players to injuries and suspension, have been shut out three times, and have seen head coach Peter Vermes promise major changes while team president Robb Heineman took to social media to ask for the fans to keep faith.

Enter Orlando City SC, who visit on Sunday afternoon (3:30 pm ET; ESPN). Their defense could be the exact tonic Sporting need:

This looks good for Kansas City, but one warning: Orlando City's defensive struggles have come mostly from an inability to deal with A) speed and B) combination play in the final third. Both of those have been lacking with SKC this season.

I'll also be watching: Sporting have committed some crazy bad turnovers in the middle third this season. Expect OCSC to sit back and play for that, with the hope being that the ball gets onto Kaká's foot in transition.

Margin Walker

NYCFC have put together their first winning streak of the season, beating Vancouver at home 3-2 two weeks ago, then besting D.C. 2-0 at RFK last weekend. And so they've climbed into fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

They've done so by being one of the most committed teams in the league to keeping the ball, which they'll attempt again on Sunday at Portland (7:30 pm ET; FS1). They tend to be incredibly idealist in their passing, which is befitting a team that has Andrea Pirlo in the midfield.

When it works it's very pretty:

When it doesn't work, it's this:

Win or lose, they give themselves a very, very tiny margin for error. And either way, their strategy relies a ton upon getting their fullbacks -- likely Ronald Matarrita at left back and R.J. Allen at right back -- into the play.

That, of course, invites real danger from opposing wide players. Patrick Nyarko was too sick to take advantage of that last weekend, but the Timbers have a full complement of fleet-footed wingers ready to hit hard on the counter, even if they've struggled to complete plays this year.

I'll also be watching: Remember in last year's MLS Cup when the Timbers came right out of the gate and pressed Columbus? They'll do exactly the same thing in this one, since the Pigeons struggle badly against high-pressing teams.

One more thing:

Happy weekending, everyone.