MLS One to Watch – Matchweek 17 Nashville SC vs Portland Timbers

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The midweek MLS action brought some of the most exciting games of the season. Highlights included the eight-goal thriller between Cincinnati and NYCFC, Montreal cruising to a win in Seattle and a PK shootout between Orlando and Nashville in US Open Cup play.

Fans are hoping the upcoming holiday weekend brings just as much fun. This week’s One to Watch is Nashville SC hosting the Portland Timbers on Sunday, July 3rd at 8:30 PM ET. Those in Tennessee and Oregon can find the game on their respective local stations, with the national broadcast available on ESPN+.

Something has to give tactically

Both teams prefer to sit back, allowing opponents to have possession before a strong defensive effort results in dangerous counterattacks the other way. Nashville averages 46% possession on the season, with the Timbers coming in at 49%. Somebody has to have the majority of the ball Sunday night, and it will be interesting to see how the tactical battle plays out in that regard.

PORTLAND, OR – JUNE 29: Portland Timbers midfielder Eryk Williamson (19) blocks a cross sent by Houston Dynamo midfielder Carlos Darwin Quintero (23) during an MLS match between the Portland Timbers and the Houston Dynamo on June 29, 2022, at Providence Park, Portland, OR. (Photo by Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

The likely team to dictate the game would be Nashville, as they are playing at home and cannot always afford to sit back. If the Timbers sit back, Nashville will be forced to take more of the ball in hopes of avoiding dropping points at home. Gary Smith’s side may also like its chances of forcing the issue against a weak Portland backline that has given up 27 goals this season, one of the worst marks in the Western Conference.

Speaking of ties, Portland has had its fair share this season, recording seven, the second-most in MLS. Nashville famously enjoys draws as well, but its five this season (less than a third of the club’s matches) is significantly less than last year’s mark, where ties accounted for over half of the team’s games.

The impact of midweek matches

Both sides played Wednesday night, with the Timbers defeating Houston 2-1 at home. Nashville visited Orlando for a US Open Cup quarterfinal, going 120 minutes before losing on penalties. Two games in a week often result in squad rotation in one or both matches, especially with Nashville’s first-choice lineup going 120. While key contributors Randall Leal, Dax McCarty, and Hany Mukhtar were subbed off during regulation, Smith has plenty of lineup factors to consider.

PORTLAND, OR – JUNE 25, 2022: Portland Timbers forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda (11) controls a ball with the shoulder prior to scoring Portland’s second goal during an MLS match between the Portland Timbers and the Colorado Rapids on June 25, 2022, at Providence Park, Portland, OR. (Photo by Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

Tired legs and rotated lineups also seem to result in more open soccer, a further layer of intrigue for this match. Fans always like goals, and this game should provide plenty of them if history continues to repeat itself.

A complicated Timbers side

Adding to the uncertainty (and therefore increased watchability) is the strange nature of the Timbers this season. The club had a high playoff seed last year and hosted MLS Cup, but the team has been a shell of itself this season. Gio Savarese has yet to get any sort of consistency going. He’s seen losses to poor teams like Miami and San Jose but has also seen firepower, including pounding seven goals on SKC.

The club’s last three matches have seen things settle down as Portland is unbeaten during the stretch. Two recent dominant home wins could be the start of a meaningful run, especially as the Timbers eye the playoff line. While they have played more games than others near them in the standings. Portland is just one point out of the playoffs and only four behind Nashville’s fifth-place spot.

The ensuing question, then, is which side will show up on Sunday, especially against a strong Nashville team that has only lost once at home this season. Add in the unpredictability of roster rotation and two sides who want to do the same things tactically and you have the recipe for a classic MLS thriller.

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