If Minnesota United fans were wondering just how far their MLS expansion team has to go to close the gap on established teams in the league, they were given a very vivid picture painted by the Portland Timbers on Friday night.
The Timbers showed off their attacking quality, and delivered a harsh baptism to Major League Soccer's newest team in Friday's 5-1 victory. The Loons kept things close through two-thirds of the match, even making a game of it when Christian Ramirez came off the bench to make the score 2-1, but Portland responded in brutal fashion. Fanendo Adi spearheaded the late surge, drawing a penalty that Diego Valeri converted before scoring two goals of his own to help the 2015 MLS Cup champions start the year in dream fashion.
Even before Adi went into beast mode, the Timbers had outplayed the Loons, who had few answers for Timbers midfielders Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco. The Argentine maestros consistently found space and opportunity against a Minnesota defense and midfield that looked every bit like a team that has only been put together in recent weeks.
Adrian Heath had to feel like he was re-living an all-too-familiar nightmare. The former Orlando City coach lost his first MLS job because of a team that couldn't defend, and on Friday Heath watched the Timbers run circles around his defense. Heath knows all too well that a bad debut shouldn't lead to panic, but there weren't many positives for the first-year MLS team to glean from Friday's beating.
The Timbers are another story. Caleb Porter couldn't have scripted a better start to the season. Not only for the result, but also because of impressive MLS debuts by Portland's top winter signings, Blanco and David Guzman. Blanco was dynamic on the right wing and he and Valeri clearly already have a good understanding of how to play together, which will only make Valeri that much more dangerous, as he showed with his two goals and assist.
So was it a case of the Timbers attack being that good, or Minnesota United's defense being that bad? On Friday, both were true. The Timbers showed their quality, but the Loons defense was atrocious, from Vadim Demidov awful debut to Jermaine Taylor's forgettable performance. Heath can take heart in the knowledge that Demidov looked much better in preseason than he showed on Friday, while also knowing Taylor is just a stop-gap measure at right back for the moment.
While the Timbers attack will grab the headlines, Guzman showed why he was drawing raves in preseason. The Costa Rican defensive midfielder gives the team some added toughness and work rate that should allow the Timbers to commit more numbers forward, while helping provide support for a defense that remains the big question mark. Lawrence Olum was steady in central defense and scored the opening goal, while left back Vytas Andriuskevicius looked very sharp, which bodes well for the Timbers being able to at least be adequate defensively, which just might be enough given how stacked the attack is.
Did we learn much about the Timbers defense on Friday? It's tough to say because Minnesota United spent much of the match being under whelming in the attack. Heath's decision to start with Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra on the bench certainly turned heads among Loons fans, but the players Heath did play offered very little. Kevin Molino, the man Minnesota United paid a pile of allocation money to acquire from Orlando City, had a lackluster debut, and the reality is Johan Venegas showed more when he moved to midfield in the second half than any of Minnesota's midfielders showed in the first half. The Loons showed life when Venegas dropped into midfield and Ramirez entered the match, but that sign of life was quickly snuffed out when Vadim Demidov grabbed Adi in the box to give the Timbers a penalty kick Valeri converted just three minutes after Ramirez's goal.
The reality is Minnesota United is destined to struggle out of the blocks. Not only because the Loons are an expansion team, but because they are an expansion team thrown together largely in the past month. It will take time for the defense to learn how to play together, and for the midfield to find a rhythm. Most importantly, it will take Adrian Heath time to figure out his best lineup, and get that lineup some games.
The Loons lineup we saw on Friday left plenty to be desired. The Timbers, on the other hand, looked every bit like a team capable of reclaiming a place atop MLS.