LOS ANGELES — The chess match is on.
Los Angeles Football Club and the Portland Timbers met for the first time in four days on Sunday, in MLS regular season play. The game, played during a warm afternoon, resulted in a 0-0 draw, the first-ever scoreless draw for LAFC.
After the game, plenty of complaints were leveled at the game being played during the day, prompting accusations that the weather played a role in a choppy, defensive affair between two of the Western Conference’s best.
We’ll never know if that was the reason the teams struggled to find rhythm, but the looming U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal rematch on Wednesday certainly played a role, too.
Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese, who had found considerable success playing a “Christmas tree” formation (4-3-2-1), trotted out a five-man backline for this game. On one hand, the strategy was effective, as LAFC’s vaunted attack was held off the board for the first time at Banc of California Stadium. On the other hand, perhaps the Open Cup match gave him a chance to play some mindgames with his counterpart, LAFC manager Bob Bradley, ahead of the elimination game.
Following Sunday’s game, LAFC was already starting to look ahead to the Open Cup game on Wednesday.
Forward Carlos Vela, making his first start since his return from the World Cup, seems to be ready for his first-ever action in the U.S. Open Cup.
“I think it’s a great opportunity because when you play for everything in one game, it’s more exciting, a stronger game, you have to focus and do a good job,” Vela told reporters after the game. “I think the team is doing really well, I think we’re really close to being in the semifinals in the first season so I think the club is doing really well. Everything is going in a good direction, so now it’s time to finish the job, now it’s time to show we’re a good team.
“We want to make a hard impact in the first season so this is the moment to be a good team and I hope we can show it Wednesday.”
Bradley admitted that his team tried something different in Sunday’s game, too, working on different corner kick routines than they had been doing. Beyond that, in addition to expressing some relief that Wednesday’s game, with a 7:30 pm PT kickoff, will be a night game, Bradley indicated some changes would likely be in the works.
“We’ll look back through today and think what might change on Wednesday,” he said.
Defender Walker Zimmerman, who won the Open Cup with FC Dallas in 2016, said the Timbers’ approach on defense stymied LAFC’s attack, but that ultimately, the goal is to win and move on.
“[U.S.] Open Cup is knockout, essentially, so it’s not one of those games where you’re looking to play 120 minutes and go to PK’s,” he said. “We want to finish it in regulation, so I think you will see us go for it quite a bit, searching for an early goal, ideally, but I think we’ll probably have a little bit more success going forward.
“They also played with five in the back today, and were very compact with eight behind the ball most of the game, and it was difficult for us,” Zimmerman continued. “We’ll get to the drawing board, look at what we can do a little better, how we can clean up some passes from both the back and the midfield, and find a way to break them down.”
Goalkeeper Tyler Miller is coming off one of his best performances of the season in the scoreless draw, including a game-saving save on a breakaway just four minutes into the game. Did he expect major differences in LAFC’s approach in an elimination game?
“You can’t play scared, you’re always going to lose when you play scared,” he said.
With the World Cup and a series of penalty shootouts in knockout games recently completed, Miller was asked if he had been preparing for the possibility of facing a shootout on Wednesday.
“If it comes to that, it comes to that,” Miller responded. “I think we can win in 90 minutes, I hope we do. But if it comes to penalties, I’ve always enjoyed penalties so I’ll be ready for it.”
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