Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger have been the guiding forces of the Fire's turnaround this season, but neither were available for Wednesday's match in Portland.
McCarty missed his second straight game while with the U.S. national team for the Gold Cup. Schweinsteiger didn't travel after suffering a hip injury in the previous game against Vancouver.
Coach Veljko Paunovic had to make some adjustments and the team survived a late flurry of chances in and around the box in the final half hour.
What the Fire look like without Dax and Basti
Given how important the Fire's typical midfield duo has been this season, it wasn't clear how the team would line up or play without either of them. Juninho has stepped in when one has been missing and the team has done fine, but with both gone things were going to be different.
Juninho was the lone defensive central midfielder. Nemanja Nikolic was joined up top by David Accam, who played as more of an outright forward than usual. Joining Juninho in the midfield was Luis Solignac, Michael de Leeuw and Arturo Alvarez, who all dropped back and defended more than usual. The formation was a 4-4-2, more specifically a 4-1-3-2 with how Juninho was the lone defensive mid and the other three attacking more.
Portland striker Fanendo Adi is a big body and one of the best at his position in the league. He gave the Fire problems in the middle, racking up seven shots. At New England on June 17, Paunovic used Schweinsteiger as a sweeper to mark another big striker in Kei Kamara. That worked fairly well on that day, but that option wasn't available to Paunovic.
Whether it's been McCarty or Schweinsteiger, one of those two has dropped between the two center backs to build possession from the back. Juninho is a sound passer, but that's not really his game. He is a shuttler, who moves the ball along simply, but he didn't have anyone to move the ball along to in the same way McCarty and Schweinsteiger would.
The Fire still tried to build out of the back, but had a few dangerous turnovers while trying to do so. Both the personnel and the formation made the Fire's typical style very difficult to play. Portland was aggressive in pressing and had a majority of the possession.
It didn't help that Matt Polster went down with an injury in the first half. Being forced to sub him out and bring on Drew Conner burned a sub, killing flexibility for later in the match, and meant another central midfield option (Conner) was now out of play because he was playing at right back.
Things changed when Jonathan Campbell was brought into the match in the second half and the formation shifted. More on that below.
Portland's second half assault
The match started fairly slowly with neither team creating many chances in the first 20 minutes. Portland had three shots, one on target, in the first 20 minutes. The Fire's first shot wasn't actually a shot. Alvarez's goal in the 34th minute was a cross that found the net thanks to Nikolic crashing in front to freeze goalkeeper Jake Gleeson.
With the match tied 1-1 after halftime, Portland didn't manage a shot in the first 10 minutes of the half. The Timbers quickly ramped things up, especially after Brandon Vincent gave the Fire the lead in the 61st minute.
When Campbell entered in the 65th minute, Paunovic was hoping to hold onto the 2-1 lead and get the win. Portland was controlling midfield and had turned up the pressure in the previous 10 minutes.
Campbell led the Fire in minutes in 2016, but has come on as a sub in his last nine league appearances. It's something that Paunovic has used regularly to help close out games, but it didn't work in Portland.
The Fire moved to a 5-3-2 formation with Campbell and then it changed to somewhat of a 5-4-1 with Accam dropping into midfield more often. Regardless of the nuance of how the players were positioned, the Fire were sitting way too deep and couldn't relieve pressure.
Portland's game-tying goal, which came five minutes after Campbell subbed on, was a combination of positioning errors and confusion with Joao Meira, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. Meira stepped up to close on the ball and Juninho and de Leeuw both closed on Diego Valeri, leaving Sebastian Blanco open in the box. In a four defender set Meira wouldn't have been in that position, but under normal circumstances de Leeuw wouldn't be asked to do this much defending anyway.
The Timbers racked up 11 shots in the 30-plus minutes after Vincent's goal gave the Fire the lead. The Fire were lucky to escape with a draw, and they may have known it. Nikolic put his arms in the air in a mild celebration after the final whistle blew.
Fun with gifs
De Leeuw was somewhat involved in Portland's second goal, but he did make a nice tackle late in the first half on Blanco. This is not your average striker's tackle.
Also here's Accam dribbling through and then burning four Portland players: