The Portland Timbers faced a somewhat depleted San Jose Earthquakes side last Sunday, as they were missing key players Steven Beitashour, Shea Salinas, and Marvin Chavez. Though I would consider Chavez to be a long shot to start, all three could well be back in the lineup on Sunday.
As Stacey pointed out on Friday, San Jose was already going to have a different look tomorrow with the suspension of Alan Gordon. With Chris Wondolowski back up top next to Steven Lenhart, Portland's center backs are going to face a different sort of challenge from what they faced last Sunday.
The Quakes' wings may present an even bigger challenge.
Wondolowski played a pretty dreadful game last week paired with Dan Gargan on the right wing, attempting just 23 passes the entire match, completing 14. Those numbers would have been okay if he were playing as a striker, but for a midfielder that's just terrible. Ramiro Corrales and Justin Morrow did a bit better, but Corrales tended toward the center of the field, giving Jack Jewsbury an easier night than he'd had against Houston.
As a result, San Jose's possession was pushed towards the middle of the field, where Diego Chara and Will Johnson waited to cut out passes and recover possession. Without quality crosses constantly coming in from the wings (they were limited to just 12 crosses, to the Timbers' 25), Lenhart and Gordon were denied repeated opportunities to jostle with Portland's CBs.
Their frustration ballooned as the match progressed, finally popping in the form of an ejection and a bad foul in a dangerous position.
Now, replace Corrales and Gargan with Shea Salinas and Steven Beitashour, and suddenly you've got a much more balanced Earthquake attack. If Chavez is somehow also able to crack the starting lineup and make his first appearance of 2013, it's a whole new ballgame.
Caleb Porter has proven to be adept at adjusting his lineup to respond to challenges presented by the opposition. It's one important reason the Timbers' second half performances have so significantly surpassed their first-halves.
Porter should treat Sunday's match just like every other second half effort this season -- it's an opportunity to change tactics and personnel in response to what he has already seen of the opponent, and what adjustments he expects his opponent to make. Fortunately, he will likely have a key personnel change of his own to throw at the opposition, with Diego Valeri likely returning to the lineup.
Obviously, Valeri should start if he's ready (he believes he is). His presence in midfield is desperately needed to connect with Ryan Johnson on his runs behind the Quakes' defense. Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan did well with that task in the second half of the Houston match, but against San Jose they were less successful. Valeri's vision and creativity will provide more consistent results.
If Steven Beitashour returns to the lineup, his presence may force Rodney Wallace to focus on defending him more, pinning him lower on the pitch and more firmly on the wing, and removing him somewhat from the attack. Wallace ended up playing similarly against Dan Gargan last week, more as a midfield winger than as a striker -- Beitashour will give him even more trouble.
With Wallace pinned to his side, it will be up to Diego Chara to provide width in the other direction and make the runs out of the midfield that have already earned him two assists in 2013 (as compared to his 0 in 2012). Nagbe should return to the striker role, just as he did in the second half against Houston, to create havoc in the space between the Quakes' lines and give Ryan Johnson a little more freedom up top.
Of course, at the foundation of it all is the quick one-touch passing and smart movements that have been a hallmarks of Porterball. If they are up to the challenge, and if Valeri is truly ready to return, Timbers fans should see their team create more chances than they saw at Jeld-Wen Field last week.
Whether the players will actually be able to finish those chances is another question altogether. Good thing Porter gets another halftime to make adjustments.