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MIDFIELD BATTLES

Since making his way back into the regular starting lineup in late August following his return from an ACL injury last season, Sebastian Blanco has been on fire. He’s notched six goals and added five assists in Portland’s 14 games since August 29 and there’s little doubt that his presence in the midfield is as essential to Portland’s success as Emanuel Reynoso’s is to MNUFC. While in some sense they will be going head-to-head on Sunday, they will not be asked to shut each other down. Their real opposite numbers will be the defensive midfielders tasked with keeping them from getting enough space to make plays. That job will likely fall to two seasoned veterans: Diego Chará for Portland and perpetual thorn in the Timbers’ side, Osvaldo Alonso. While Alonso missed the regular season finale against the Galaxy, if he’s ready to go, there’s little chance that Head Coach Adrian Heath won’t go with the captain who’s made it to 13 straight postseasons.

However, we’ve also seen Heath utilize Hassani Dotson as an advanced destroyer against holding midfielders who can distribute from the back, so it’s not impossible that we’ll see both Alonso and Dotson out there with Dotson tasked with keeping Chará from setting up the attack. Of course, with a dual pivot, that means not utilizing Wil Trapp, who started 31 of 34 games for the Loons and quietly murdered opposing teams with excellent distribution. In the regular season, he served up 115 accurate long balls — more than anyone except for goalkeeper Tyler Miller and a full 44 more than Emanuel Reynoso in second place. He also completed 1,362 short passes, which was 340 more than Chase Gasper in second place and he only turned the ball over 17 times. That’s only three more than Alonso but in almost twice as many passes.

In the postseason, experience generally wins out, so it’s likely we will see Alonso and Trapp start, with Dotson on the bench. In some ways, Dotson’s flexibility — he’s played every position from fullback to midfield to wing this season — works against him since he’s almost more valuable as a Swiss Army knife to bring in wherever you need production later in the game. Keep your eyes on the battles between Reynoso and Chara on one end and Blanco and Alonso on the other. Those alone should be worth the price of admission.

EXPECTED GOALS

It’s no secret that Minnesota United have struggled to put away chances this year. When the New York Red Bulls snuck into the playoffs on Decision Day with 39 goals, they became the postseason team with the fewest goals, but the Loons ended the season with just 42 — the fewest in the Western Conference. They also head into the playoffs as the only team with a negative goal differential, traditionally a solid predictor of a team’s performance.

There is a silver lining here, though. The Loons have wildly underperformed their expected goals this season — a fact which should shock no one who’s seen them create opportunities but fail to finish them. According to American Soccer Analysis, Minnesota’s xGF over the season was 51.35, almost 10 more than they managed. On the flip side, Portland’s xGF was 48.88 but they actually scored 54. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, perhaps obviously. On the one hand, you would expect goals and expected goals to get closer over time as the outliers regress. But on the other hand, finishing is a very real skill and if a team doesn’t have it, there’s not much you can do tactically to get it out of them.

There’s one more wrinkle here. The Timbers have struggled defensively at times during the season, giving up 52 goals — the second most of any Western Conference team in the playoffs. Their expected goals allowed, though, is even worse: 59.18, the second worst xGA in the entire league. In essence, they’re not just letting goals in, they’re allowing good chances to be created. They also allowed a league-high 12.5 xG from corner kicks and free kicks, two areas in which Emanuel Reynoso shines brightest.

We’ve seen MNUFC struggle to cash in those chances, but given enough of them, the team should be able to make something of them and has more than enough experience and grit at the back to hold a lead.

FORWARDS

While forward Adrien Hunou has struggled with consistency and the final ball this season, he has managed three goals in his last seven games, which were all starts. Heath has seemed to settle in to starting Hunou up top with Franco Fragapane, Emanuel Reynoso and Robin Lod spread out left to right in the attacking midfield, then bringing on Ethan Finlay in the second half to put Lod up top and provide energy off the bench late on.

Portland — who have been strong down the spine with Diego Chará, Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco for years — have had their own struggles with finding a forever forward, having rotated through options from Samuel Armenteros to Jeremy Ebobisse to Dairon Asprilla to Felipe Mora, not to mention current Loon Fanendo Adi. But Jaroslaw Niezgoda, who arrived in Portland from Poland in January of 2020, has come on strong in the striker position now that he’s recovered from a torn ACL suffered against Vancouver in November of 2020. In his last nine games, which includes three starts, the young forward has three goals as well as an assist.

Asprilla as well is having a terrific year, ending the regular season with 10 goals. Fundamentally, both teams have a plethora of options who can score, the question is: who will score? Hunou’s movement in the box has gotten better over the course of the season and he’s beginning to look more like a true center forward, rather than a secondary striker or winger. With the way Reynoso and co. are playing behind him, we know the opportunities will be there. It will be up to the Frenchman to put them in the back of the net when they’re presented.

POSSESSION

Possession might be nine-tenths of the law, but it’s not always directly correlated with success on the soccer pitch. Most coaches want to play with the ball, given that it generally allows their team to control the tempo of the game, but as Head Coach Adrian Heath has often said, possession alone doesn’t win you the game. You have to do something with it, and at times this season, both Portland and Minnesota have done the most with the least.

In the Loons’ most emphatic win of the season — a 3-0 drubbing of the Galaxy at home that was their only win by more than two goals — they had just 34.9% of the ball. Following a four-game swoon to open the season, MNUFC notched their second win of the year against FC Dallas with 45% of the ball.

Portland finished up the season on a tear, beating Austin FC 3-0, RSL 3-1 and San Jose 2-0 after losing to Colorado. In the three wins, they had 40%, 35% and 41% possession, respectively. In the loss, they had 57%. Over the entire season, the Timbers were dead last in possession at 44.7%.

Now, it’s nothing so simple as letting the other team have the ball. But in some ways, it’s as simple as the idea that attacking a scrambling defense is better than attacking a set defense. The Portland Timbers have been a team of savvy veterans — including Diego Valeri, Diego Chará, Sebastian Blanco and Steve Clark — for years at this point, known for sitting back and then killing you in transition. While not as dogmatically counterattacking, MNUFC have at times found great success by relying on the defensive prowess of the backline and their defensive mids and then attacking downhill with direct balls.

Given both teams predilections and track records, it won’t be surprising if the team that comes out on top Sunday is the one that has less of the ball.