The moment you all have been waiting for has finally arrived — the first match preview of the 2021 MLS season. This will obviously not be a normal season opener for many reason — for one it is thousands of miles from British Columbia, despite being a “home match.” The Caps will be shorthanded a bit as their new arrivals ease into things. And they do it all against a stout Portland Timbers side who has the potential to once again lift silverware.
Teams: Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Portland Timbers
Location: Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
Date and Time: Sunday April 18, 9:00 p.m. EST/6:00 p.m. PST
TV: TSN1/3, ESPN+, Radio: AM730
What to expect
To put it bluntly, it probably is better not to expect a whole lot. The Caps may have found some success in their final preseason tuneup against the Chicago Fire by hitting back on the counter-attack but that was against another fair-to-middling side who also was rounding into form. It will be a whole different ask for the Caps to mount a similar charge against a Portland Timbers side who smashed CD Marathon 5-0 in the CONCACAF Champions League earlier this week.
But a promising (yet brief) run of preseason matches shows the likely blueprint for stealing a result Sunday. Sitting back in the 4-4-2, the Caps did pretty well at absorbing pressure against the Fire (although this is certainly not your first choice backline). Both Colombians, Deibar Caicedo and Cristian Dajome, will be asked to bomb forward on the counter.
Both of Portland’s fullbacks, Claudio Bravo and Josecarlos Van Rankin, looked good against CD Marathon on Tuesday but they also are both new to the team and have yet to fully settle in. The Caps also were aggressive from set-pieces in all of their preseason games, so look for them to get Lucas Cavallini involved that way as well. And look for the re-introduction of Michael Baldisimo (who was absent for much of the preseason on international duty and captained the youth side last weekend) to provide a jolt of energy and imagination to the endeavor.
Looking at the enemy
I predicted Portland to win the MLS Cup in Coffee with the Caps on Friday and it all starts for them with a plethora of attacking talent. Yimmi Chara bagged a hat trick on Tuesday and the entire attacking front looked to be in midseason form already.
That being said, the Timbers will not be at full strength either. Jeremy Ebobisse is out until next month but the Timbers will likely roll with Felipe Mora up top — who bagged a goal of his own in Honduras in CCL play. And the Caps will breath a sigh of relief as Sebastian Blanco won’t be fit to return for at least several more weeks.
You can do a lot worse than Larrys Mabiala and Dario Zaparic at centerback but Timbers’ fans always seem to be pining for new blood in central defense, potentially signaling a weakness the Caps can exploit. And maybe a game in the midweek will put some fatigue on the 35-year-old legs of Diego Valeri and Diego Chara. But depth is perhaps Portland’s biggest strength and being able to call on guys like Marvin Loria and Cristhian Paredes off the bench could make the differnce.
Matchup to watch
Deibar Caicedo vs. Josecarlos Van Rankin
Both players are making their MLS debuts on Sunday and both fit the mold of the kind of play their teams will be looking to embrace this season.
A 10-year veteran of Liga MX, Van Rankin will look to provide an anchor to a backline that was a little leaky at times last year. This also means he has no shortage of experience in dealing with pacey, technical wide players like Caicedo, who has really hit the ground running as the only new arrival to make it into training camp before the season started.
Both of these players will need to take some time to feel things out but given the Caps’ play style, Caicedo is going to have to keep up his strong preseason if they are going to do anything against Portland.
Predicted Starting XI
The Caps are already mired in injury issues — Erik Godoy, Derek Cornelius, Tos Ricketts and Leonard Owusu are all ruled out and Ali Adnan is mired in visa purgatory. Caio Alexandre, Bruno Gaspar and David Egbo are all quarantining after getting their own immigration paperwork squared away.
That means we are likely to see a starting XI that will largely resemble what Marc dos Santos trotted out in the preseason, using a 4-4-2 that appears to be his preference, at least until the team is at full strength. To put this another way: another season opener, another year with Rusty Teibert in the starting lineup.
Nerwinski — Veselinovic — Rose — Gutierrez
Caicedo — Baldisimo — Bikel — Teibert
Cavallini — Dajome
Both games last season were relatively quiet affairs for these two teams — both involved 1-0 Portland wins. I expect the Caps to at least get on the scoresheet Sunday and that they will make it competitive for about 60 minutes before they hit the wall in terms of fitness, with Portland firmly pulling away in the last half hour. I envision a 3-1 Portland win, balanced out by Lucas Cavallini getting on the scoresheet.
Eighty Six Forever Team Predictions
Sam: 2-1 Portland
Caleb: 2-1 Portland
Luis: 2-1 Vancouver
Ian 2-2 Draw