The Portland Timbers are currently in 7th place in the MLS Western Conference, just three points behind their next opponent, the Colorado Rapids. The team's win last weekend over the Seattle Sounders has given hope to fans and players alike that they have turned a corner and will now go on a winning run to surpass the losing run they just finished.
Says Troy Perkins, "Look at LA, they get nine points in a week and now they are in fifth place. There is no reason we can't do the same next week with three games."
But turning the Seattle win into an extended run will be a monumental task. They'll face a Colorado Rapids side that is just hitting its stride, playing for the first time this year with the starting lineup that Coach Oscar Pareja had envisioned back in March. After that it gets even even tougher, facing the first and second best teams in the MLS in quick succession.
Also, two of those games will be played at over 4,000 feet above sea level.
Even worse, as Perkins mentioned, those three games all happen within the span of a week. In fact, the Timbers are entering a stretch of the season in which they will play seven games in four weeks (not including the friendly against Aston Villa), all against Western Conference teams.
As a result of the unbalanced schedule and other considerations, every MLS team's schedule includes a couple of weeks like the one the Timbers are about to experience. As we explored earlier this season, the teams that have done well in those stretches have benefited from vast depth and versatility in their lineups.
Real Salt Lake, for example, used sixteen different starters in a run of three matches, using a small core of four players to start every game. The San Jose Earthquakes didn't use quite as many players during their difficult stretches, but they dramatically switched up their formations to help keep players from breaking down mentally.
Are the Timbers similarly ready for this difficult month? Here's my take:
Injuries and suspensions will keep the Timbers' top two center backs, Eric Brunner and Hanyer Mosquera, out of the lineup for at least the first two matches. Though the first two replacements, Futty Danso and David Horst, are probably better any third and fourth string CBs in the league, the dropoff in experience after them is significant.
Meanwhile, at the fullback positions, only three players have proven to be even remotely adequate this season, one of whom, Steve Purdy, could easily be called upon to spell one of the CBs. Freddie Braun and Ryan Kawulok could be an adequate replacement if Jack Jewsbury needs a rest next week.
But if exhaustion or injury takes Steven Smith, heaven help the back line.
Defense: Not ready.
The midfield has been one area on the field where Coach John Spencer has used some depth this season. Whether that depth has been effective, however, is another question entirely.
As we have mentioned on this blog before, the Spencer has started seven different players in the two midfield wing positions this season, trying to find the combination for creating scoring chances. Seven would certainly seem to be enough for a three-game stretch, if not for the fact that most of those combinations have failed the consistency test.
Still, the Japanese word for crisis is the same as its word for opportunity, at least according to Lisa Simpson (I'm hoping Ryan can confirm this point). The crisis inherent in the upcoming schedule may well be the opportunity that guys like Eric Alexander, Rodney Wallace, Sal Zizzo -- and perhaps even Brent Richards -- need to make their case for a more permanent place in the lineup.
Taking the crisitunity theme a step further, the three-game week might also afford Spencer a chance to try out a different CM partner for Diego Chara.
Midfield: Possibly ready?
Kris Boyd is almost certain to start every match, barring injury, from now until the end of his contract. Lining up next to him are two very capable strike partners in Danny Mwanga and Mike Fucito, with the exciting additional options of Sebastian Rincon and Brent Richards eagerly awaiting a shot at the first team.
What do you think?