New on Sports Illustrated: Timbers-Los Angeles FC Preview

September 13, 2020 at 08:59AM

As the Portland Timbers look to regroup without a key playmaker, Los Angeles FC is trying to maneuver through a rough patch of its own without a pair of important cogs heading into Sunday's showdown of Western Conference heavyweights.

The Timbers (4-3-2), who won the MLS Is Back tournament in Orlando, have not really shown that form since returning to the Pacific Northwest. Portland, though, did end a four-match winless spell last Sunday with a 2-1 victory at reigning MLS Cup champion Seattle on a late goal by Felipe Mora.

The win, though, came at a steep cost with midfielder Sebastian Blanco forced off in the fifth minute with a torn ACL that has ended his season. The MVP of the MLS Is Back with five assists in seven matches, Blanco had four goals and seven assists in 13 matches across all competitions this year and has racked up 33 goals and 39 assists in 121 matches with Portland since arriving in 2017.

"It's a big loss," Timbers coach Gio Savarese told media on a virtual press conference Friday. "It's a loss we cannot replace. We're not looking for someone to replace him.

"It's an opportunity for other players to get minutes, show themselves and compete," Savarese added. "We have different options. Yimmi Chara is getting better, back from his injury but not yet ready to play 90 minutes. … We have the flexibility to change in different ways to play other players."

Chara appeared as a second-half substitute versus the Sounders an is still getting acclimated to MLS after spending the last two seasons with Brazilian side Atletico Miniero. Savarese can also move Jeremy Ebobisse, who is tied for second on the team with four goals in all competitions, to the wing in support of playmaker Diego Valeri.

Los Angeles FC (3-4-3) is in arguably the worst stretch in club history since entering Major League Soccer in 2018, losing four of its five matches since returning from MLS Is Back. Its 5-1 throttling of San Jose on Sept. 2 may have raised false hopes as Bob Bradley's side has absorbed back-to-back 3-0 drubbings, the latest coming at Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night.

"We're at an interesting moment where we're facing more adversity than we have in the first two years, and that's part of becoming a good team," Bradley admitted to the team's official website. "It's easy to see that we are in a period where it's well below our standards. There's only one thing we can do – we have to play ourselves out of it."

Some of these problems would not exist if reigning MLS MVP and Golden Boot winner Carlos Vela was not sidelined with a sprained left knee, leaving Diego Rossi as LAFC's primary goal-scoring threat. But midfielder Eduard Atuesta is also a key offensive component for the Supporters' Shield holders – he had 11 assists last year – and continues to be sidelined with a foot injury suffered in the MLS Is Back quarterfinal loss to Orlando.

That injury has forced a midfield shuffle for Bradley, who has shifted Latif Blessing – usually a No. 8 – to right back.

"With the situation at the moment, we've challenged Latif to be the best right back," Bradley told the league's official website. "We've worked with him now every day to try and help him understand a few things. He's played some important moments for us at right back last year and in the early part of this year, and he can do the job. At the moment that's still the focus."

The teams played out a 2-2 draw in group play in Orlando on July 23, with Ebobisse's goal on 81 minutes helping Portland claim a point. LAFC is 2-0-2 in the last four matchups after losing 2-1 in the first meeting in Providence Park in 2018.

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