Two goals from Darlington Nagbe in the final twelve minutes saw the Portland Timbers reserves to a 3-3 draw with their counterparts from LA Galaxy. The visitors created a two-goal gap mid-way through the second half on a stunning goal from Ryan Thomas and a tidy finish from Paolo Cardozo before Nagbe’s brace drew the Timbers level at the end. Curiously, the game was mostly devoid of big name players, despite the week off from league play due to an international break. Instead, both clubs used youngsters and trialists to help fill out their line-ups.
For Portland, the most high profile players were Nagbe and Eric Alexander, both of whom started and played the full game. Amos Magee used a 4-4-2 where Nagbe played below Bright Dike, first centrally, then on the left, then on the right and finally back on the left to close the match. Nagbe looked most comfortable playing on the left as it allowed him space to dribble and create passing chances. While in the middle, directly below Dike, it seemed like he did not have enough room to take advantage of his skill set. Later in the first half, Nagbe was able to sit much deeper, almost as a midfielder, creating a 4-2-3-1 look with Rodrigo López on the left and Alexander on the right. From that position, Nagbe could maneuver within the context of the formation but still push forward to augment Dike’s efforts up top. Still, on the left, above López, was Nagbe at his best. He could cut into the interior of defense, drift wide toward the corner flag or lay off to López behind him.
Alexander played almost exclusively on the right, though he did move into the middle when Tracy Hasson came on late in the game, as the Timbers moved to a 3-5-2. Alexander’s reserve debut came against Vancouver Whitecaps and he played centrally alongside Peter Lowry in that game. His substitute appearance again Chivas USA in the first team also saw him in the middle, set very deep and at times man-marking Justin Braun. Against the Galaxy reserves, the most recently acquired Timbers player finally had the freedom to play offensively. Whether it was working overlapping runs with young Mark Lee down the right flank, sending crosses from the wing or simply helping push possession to an advanced position, Alexander was one of the key components to the Timbers’ attack. He assisted on Dike’s goal and nearly had another assist when his perfect cross was headed by Dike, but directly to goalkeeper Brian Perk. The problem for Alexander will be breaking into the starting XI, as Sal Zizzo has the right midfield position to himself at the moment.
Operating behind the forward pushing midfielders was the steady combination of Freddie Braun and captain Lowry. The pairing is a very successful one because of their consistency and composure on the ball. Both players were largely responsible for most of the Timbers’ attacking runs, whether in winning possession from the Galaxy, allowing wide attackers a chance to get forward or by pushing forward themselves and providing service. Goals were not the direct result in this game but the threat is quite different from what the central midfielders in the first team bring. Ultimately I’d like to see Lowry get a chance to play in the first team more often, though it would have to come at the expense of Jack Jewsbury or in a formation with five midfielders. Braun is a young player with a lot of potential, one whom I hope the Timbers retain in this offseason. He is determined, skillful and at 23, at the right age to introduce into the first team.
Regarding the back line, it was unsurprising to see the Timbers allow several goals. That had less to do with the individual abilities of the defenders and more to do with the fact that three of them were on trial, leaving communication and anticipation lacking. Chris Taylor, the Timbers’ usual reserve left back, had a nice game, coming out of his shell a bit more with each appearance. Elsewhere, Lee played hard but seemed not to be quite fit enough to compete at the reserve level. He did not make many glaring mistakes, but he did seem to be trailing the wide players for the Galaxy more frequently than Magee would’ve wanted. Taylor Mueller and Douglas Nyame played as central backs (until the final moments when substitutions and circumstances required only a three-man back line) and did a reasonable job containing Jack McBean. The first two Galaxy goals were from distance and the result of a failure to close out away from goal. Those are the kind of goals that are acceptable in this kind of encounter, as it is understood that visiting players are less likely to be on the same page. Otherwise, Mueller was quite good in the air and Nyame covered a lot of ground on several instances to break up a Galaxy attack.
In the end, it was a reserve match. A chance for youngsters, trialists and players whose minutes have been less than they’d like to make an impression and play in a meaningful game. Both sides certainly took the match very seriously and though the way in which the scoreline came about was creative, the final result was not unjust.