Toronto FC's new high-flying offence and somewhat improved defence gets a test Saturday in the form of the visiting Portland Timbers.
The Timbers (7-6-12) are unbeaten in their last 10 league games (4-0-6) and arrive in Toronto on the back of successive ties against Minnesota, Nashville and Dallas. Their last loss was May 28, a 2-1 setback at Inter Miami.
It's the longest active unbeaten streak in MLS.
"Always a tough team," said Toronto coach Bob Bradley. "Physically strong. A real presence on set pieces. Organized. And then a couple of players they rely on to make plays. For sure, (Sebastian) Blanco. (He's) still very important for them. Both Charas (Colombia-born brothers Diego and Yimmi Chara). Good team."
Polish striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda leads the Timbers with nine goals.
While Bradley is no stranger to the Timbers from his days running Los Angeles FC, his TFC players don't get to see Portland much.
Saturday marks the teams' first meeting since April 2019 when the Timbers won 2-1 for the first time in six career visits (1-4-1) to BMO Field.
Only captain Michael Bradley, goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, defender Chris Mavinga and midfielder Jonathan Osorio remain from the Toronto starters that day.
Portland goes into weekend play in seventh spot in the Western Conference, just above the playoff line.
Toronto (7-12-5) sits 13th in the East but is just four points out of the playoffs. Still, there are five teams — Orlando, Miami, New England, Charlotte and Atlanta — between TFC and seventh-place Chicago, which currently holds down the last post-season berth.
Recent signs are positive. TFC is unbeaten in three games (2-0-1) with its offence showing significantly more teeth. Compare those seven points from the last three outings to the eight points TFC picked up in its previous 14 league games (2-10-2) dating back to mid-April.
Buoyed by the arrival of Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, Toronto has scored four goals in each of its last two wins (4-0 over visiting Charlotte and 4-3 at Nashville last time out) sandwiched around a 0-0 draw at New England.
Bob Bradley says the Italian attackers are finding their feet after arriving midseason short on training time.
"This has been a good week for both," he said. "You see every day more energy, the personalities of both coming out more and more within the group. That's also really important. They love football. They bring personality, they bring creativity. They bring a lot.
"They're moving in a good way. And we continue to try to push them along. We've pushed them minute-wise as best we can in this whole stretch, without going over the top. Now I think for the final run, you'll see even more."
Toronto has 10 games remaining, including five at home where it needs to maximize points if it is to climb up the table.
And while Toronto ranks 24th in the 28-team league on defence, conceding 1.75 goals a game on average, it has given up just six goals in its last five games with three of those coming in Nashville.
Bradley says his team had reacted well defensively "in tough moments" recently.
Still, there is more work to do. A midfield giveaway by Bernardeschi led to a Nashville penalty late in the half last Saturday. And Toronto continues to have issues defending set pieces.
Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese called Toronto a "difficult team" — and one on the rise as the Italian newcomers bed in.
"They still are looking with the new additions to be able to execute things at a higher level," said the Venezuelan. "They're in the process of getting better. So game by game, they always look a better team.
"And definitely when you add players like Bernardeschi and Insigne, primarily you're going to get quality. You're going to get individual moments that can change a game, besides them being part of a system. And I do think that always when those players come in, not only are they able to execute by themselves but a lot of the times, in my experience, those players, when they come, they bring a higher standard to everyone around them and everybody starts playing better.
"So for us, it's going to be great to play against a stronger Toronto because it's going to be a more competitive match. And that's what we want."
Savarese said defender Claudio Bravo (hamstring) and midfielders Eryk Williamson (hamstring) and Cristhian Paredes (ankle) should all be available Saturday. All three were questionable last weekend.
"They continue to get better and healthier. They're ready to be with us," he said.
Bravo started last weekend against Dallas but did not play the second half, Williamson came in off the bench in the 64th minute. Paredes did not make the matchday squad.
Portland thought it had the win when it went ahead 1-0 in the 96th minute on a goal by Marvin Loria. But an own goal four minutes later by Diego Chara gave Dallas a 1-1 tie at Providence Park.
The Timbers will be without Chilean forward Felipe Mora (knee).
Toronto midfielder Noble Okello (lower body) and Westberg (rib) are unavailable while midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye (lower body) is listed as questionable.
Portland's 10-game unbeaten run includes six games at home. The Timbers, who are 2-4-6 on the road this season, went 1-0-3 in the four away games during the current run.
Portland has only had two longer single-season unbeaten streaks in club history, twice going 15 in a row without losing — first in March-June 2013 and again in April-August 2018.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 12, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press