D.C. United last won March 9, with a 1-0 triumph over Real Salt Lake. On that same day, the Portland Timbers dropped a 2-1 decision to the Montreal Impact.
Since then, United haven’t won and the Timbers haven’t lost.
The reasons for United’s struggles en route to a 1-8-2 mark have been well documented here in Washington, so let’s focus on the Timbers (4-1-7), who have quickly established a possession-oriented identity under first-year coach Caleb Porter, formerly of the University of Akron and the U.S. under-23 national team.
As United midfielder Nick DeLeon said, “Caleb coming in there has implemented the keeping-the-ball style of soccer, and it’s paying off for them. We have to go in there and disrupt it — plain and simple.”
The Timbers play a 4-3-3 formation in which three central midfielders win the battles inside and create space for the wingers and overlapping fullbacks to attack. And they do this with great efficiency: The Timbers maintain possession for 57.9 percent of matches, generating 14.58 shots per game and 1.67 goals — all of which lead MLS.
It’s a different 4-3-3 than Sporting Kansas City, who relied on high pressure and a more direct style during their 1-1 draw with United last weekend.
“Portland is a very good team, and I think they’ve learned that system very well in the short time under Caleb,” midfielder Chris Pontius said. “They’re not as offensively aggressive as Kansas City is, but in possession Portland is a fantastic team, so we’ve got to get their playmakers off the ball.”
Going into Saturday’s match at RFK Stadium between United and the Timbers, here are a few key matchups to watch:
• Perry Kitchen and DeLeon vs. Diego Chara, Will Johnson and Diego Valeri. There’s a chance John Thorrington or Raphael Augusto could get the nod next to Kitchen, but my guess is it’s DeLeon getting an audition there for the second straight week. Kitchen, who played under Porter at Akron, should know how to handle Portland’s effective trio, but asking a newcomer to the position such as DeLeon to make the right defensive reads could be a tall task. Look for withdrawn forward Dwayne De Rosario to drop back and help with frequency.
• Darlington Nagbe vs. Daniel Woolard. Woolard had his struggles containing Kansas City playmaker Graham Zusi last weekend, and his task doesn’t get much easier with the savvy and skilled Nagbe manning the right flank for Portland. To make matters more difficult, converted midfielder Jack Jewsbury provides reliable support to Nagbe from right back. If United coach Ben Olsen is concerned about this particular matchup, James Riley and Taylor Kemp are also options at left back.
• Casey Townsend vs. Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Pa Modouh Kah. With Mamadou Danso suspended and David Horst and Mikael Silvestre out with long-term injuries, the Timbers are without their top three center backs. That means the recently acquired Kah is likely to partner with the 20-year-old Jean-Baptiste. This is a clear area of weakness for Portland, and one Townsend (or Lionard Pajoy or Carlos Ruiz) will need to capitalize on.