And then there were four. It's time to get hyped for the Conference Championships, with the first legs kicking off Sunday, Nov. 25. Over the next week, we're diving deep into New York Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United and Sporting KC vs. Portland Timbers to see where each side can find an edge in their matchup. With the help of columnists Matt Doyle and Bobby Warshaw, we're parsing all facets of both Conference Championship clashes, one day at a time. On Wednesday, we started with the goalkeepers, yesterday we discussed defenders, and today, we continue with the midfield.
The midfielders are the most important pieces to the Timbers' side, while SKC have used their engine room to control the game with death by possession.
SKC has lined up in their traditional 4-3-3, though with less pressing and more possession this season. A triumvirate of Ilie Sanchez, Felipe Gutierrez and Roger Espinoza hold down the center of the park. The trio is tasked with controlling the tempo of the match, as they've done so well this season, helping lead the team to a fantastic offensive season.
On the other side, it's a tale of two Diegos: Valeri and Chara. The former was tied for the team lead in goals (10) and led the team in assists (12) just a season removed from winning the 2017 Landon Donovan MLS MVP, while the Timbers hardly earn results when the latter isn't in the starting XI. Next to Valeri in an attacking position out of the midfield is Sebastian Blanco, who also notched a double-double in 2018 (10 goals and 11 assists.) Their plan is well defined and executed; from the midfield is how the Timbers win games.
The last time the two sides faced each other, SKC overran the Timbers, 3-0, holding 63 percent possession and outshot the visitors 25-7. Chara was notably an unused substitute that day.
Let's see which set of midfielders our experts fancy . . .
Ilie, Gutierrez and Espinoza are all high-level pieces and have all played like it at times throughout this season with the ball. They can be devastating. But I still have major questions about their ability without the ball, as they’ve been gappy and frankly a little bit soft defensively (just think of minutes 30 through 90 of the second leg vs. RSL) at really inopportune times. On the wings, they have a ton of firepower, though it sometimes comes at the expense of their defensive shape.
Valeri is arguably the best No. 10 of this decade and Chara is arguably the best d-mid/box-to-box mid of this decade. David Guzman has been serviceable or better lately and Blanco has been a match-winner. Portland don’t have the depth that SKC boast, but Valeri and Chara are probably the two best players in this series.
Hard to ignore that, ain’t it?
Matt's right, Chara and Valeri are the two best players in the series; I don't have any problem with his logic. But, also, Espinoza is one of the best five (or even three?) midfielders in the league in the last decade, Gutierrez has 34 caps for Chile, and Ilie was a 2018 All-Star. Portland have the edge on talent, but not by an unreachable amount.
When a possession team (SKC) plays a counterattacking team (Portland), it generally becomes a matter of who blinks first. Who makes the first mistake? The counterattacking team is at the disposal of the passing team and must wait until the passing team falters. As great as Valeri and Chara are, the team is set up in a reactive manner.
I don't think SKC will make the requisite mistakes. Vermes is a good coach and Ilie/Guitierrez/Espinoza are all veterans who understand how this works; they will be very careful and methodical with their passes.
Perhaps it's the romantic in me that believes passing can outwit rigid defending, but I like SKC to win the midfield contest in this one.