VANCOUVER, BC – Saturday’s match between Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Portland Timbers (2 p.m. PT kickoff, TSN1) is no doubt the biggest of the year for both teams.
There are still a number of points to play for, so it’s by no means a do-or-die situation for either side, but it’s hard to ignore the playoff implications.
As it stands, the ‘Caps are one point up on the Timbers for the fifth and final playoff position in the Western Conference. Both teams have six matches remaining.
Below, we break down two important matchups to watch in Saturday’s Cascadia derby, which has all the makings of a dandy.
MORALES VS. VALERI
It’s hard to argue that the two players most important to the success of their respective teams are South American attacking midfielders Pedro Morales and Diego Valeri.
Morales leads Whitecaps FC with eight goals and 10 assists, while Valeri leads the Timbers with 13 assists and is second to only Maximiliano Urruti with eight goals.
The ‘Caps have only lost one match this season when Morales records a point. Similarly, the Timbers have only lost twice when Valeri gets on the scoresheet.
Those numbers speak for themselves, but here are some more that speak to the impact they’ve made in comparison to the rest of MLS. Valeri is tied for the league-lead with 87 chances created for his teammates, while Morales is fifth in MLS with 67.
As you can see from the graphics below (courtesy of Squawka), both players have created most of their chances from central positions in the attacking third.
However, Valeri has also been very dangerous on the right side of the pitch. Morales, meanwhile, has created far more opportunities from the central third of the pitch, illustrating his willingness to drop into deeper positions.
LABA VS. CHARA
Since Morales and Valeri play the same position, they won’t actually be matched up against one another. That’s where the holding midfielders come into play.
The impact Morales and Valeri make on the day will have a lot to do with the players mainly responsible for marking them. For Vancouver, that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Matias Laba, while Diego Chara will no doubt be tasked with shutting down Morales – just as he was in Portland’s 3-0 win over Vancouver last month.
Here’s what Timbers head coach Caleb Porter had to say after that match.
“We sat Chara a little bit more and locked him in on Morales,” said Porter, which is illustrated in the adjacent heat maps. “I thought that was a key because in some games we haven’t had that protection in the hole. I thought Chara did a really good job on Morales, who I think is one of the best attacking mids in the league.”
Just as Morales and Valeri are two of the top attacking mids in MLS, Laba and Chara are two of the best – if not the best – defensive mids.
Here are some numbers to back that up.
Laba currently leads MLS with 118 tackles, followed by Chara at 117. The next highest player has 92. They’re also tied for the league lead with 99 tackles won – “deemed to be where the tackler or one of his teammates regains possession as a result of the challenge.”
The similarities are uncanny.
These are just two of the matchups to look out for on Saturday, but in reality, there are going to be some great matchups all over the park. It’s going to be fun to watch.