The first time the Portland Timbers played the Colorado Rapids in 2014, Donovan Ricketts was sent (and stretchered) off, Andrew Weber gave away another penalty and the Timbers left the Commerce City cold with a 2-0 defeat. Four months later, Portland is coming off another 2-0 loss while the Rapids are sitting in third place. To get an idea of what's transpired since the first encounter, we turned to Burgundy Wave's Chris White.
1. It's easy to look at Colorado from here and say they're having a really good season. Is that a fair assessment half-way through the year?
We're certainly having an interesting season, if nothing else. Having watched every game, it's actually a bit surprising that the Rapids are currently nestled in that third-place spot in the West, because the season has been such a roller coaster. There have been major ups and major downs, with no winning or losing streak seeming to last more than two or three games before the roller coaster dips back up or down. Part of that is because of a very young team that has fluctuations combined with a first-year coach who stepped directly off the field into the coach's box. Tinkering, over-rotation of the squad, chemistry issues and the same awful finishing problems that plagued the Rapids in 2013 have popped up again this season at various times, though it's been getting progressively better as the season has gone along.
I guess with all that in mind, when you look at the standings and see the Rapids in third place, "really good season" would be a pretty good way to describe it.
2. After a couple of losses in April and May, the Rapids have only lost once since May 17. What's been difference in this rise to third place?
The biggest issue with the Rapids earlier in the season was a comical lack of goals -- you'll recall that the Rapids at one point had something ridiculous like five goals from penalties and one goal from open play, which was just the rebound of a saved penalty -- and the biggest reason why they're currently on a decent streak without loss is the fact that goals are finally coming again. Other than the 0-0 draw against Chicago that saw both teams play back-up squads (it was the worst MLS game all season, trust me) they've scored in every game since early May. It's the usual suspects who are making the offense happen from open play, as well. Dillon Powers has played at an All-Star level in the midfield, with four goals and five assists, and Deshorn Brown has finally started piling them in as well. The supporting cast of Vicente Sanchez, Dillon Serna and the rest are also doing fine attacking work, and mitigating the biggest issue with the team's offense, which is finishing, by creating so many decent opportunities that a few are bound to go in.
3. These two teams played in the second game of the season. How different will the line-up look from what we saw in that bizarre, two penalty game in March?
The biggest difference will be the lack of Vicente Sanchez on the Rapids' side. He was suspended for two games after a rather nasty tackle to a Columbus Crew player's knee, and this represents the second game of that suspension. He'll be a big miss for the Rapids, as he leads the team in goals and is one of the best players in the league at creating chances out of absolutely nothing with his sharp passing, off the ball movement and anticipation. Past Sanchez, it's hard to give a good answer to that question, because Pablo Mastroeni has made a habit out of surprising people with his roster choices.
Here are my answers to Chris' questions:
1. When last we met, there hadn't been enough soccer played to get an idea of how the season would go. Now, the Timbers are in a surprising place, low in the standings. What's been the difference between the impressive 2013 and faltering 2014 teams?
There are not enough words in the universe to adequately answer this question. However, short story is that the career years enjoyed by so many in 2013 (Darlington Nagbe, Will Johnson, Ryan Johnson, Rodney Wallace, to name a few) either have not come close to being repeated, derailed by injury or in Ryan Johnson's case, led to signing in China. Diego Valeri is still producing at a high rate and several newcomers (Fanendo Adi, Gaston Fernandez and Maximiliano Urruti) have picked up the slack offensively but it hasn't been nearly enough to offset the terrible defense. From poor performances to injuries, the defense has been a disaster all year and only some good performances from Donovan Ricketts have kept this season from being Montreal-like. So basically no one is as good as last year, especially the defense, and other teams have figured out how to combat the Timbers' style.
2. Tell us a bit about the Timbers newest DP, Fanendo Adi.
Adi is technically the second newest DP, with Liam Ridgewell's signing coming a few days later. Pedantry aside, Adi is a beast of a forward and is just 23. He'd been at FC Kobenhavn and after scoring four goals in his first four games, the Timbers bought out his contract and signed him to a multi-year deal. Though he hasn't scored since signing the DP contract, Adi is a constant threat for center backs, especially if they're not as big and good as Chad Marshall. He's great with his back to goal, he wins headers, he's got a cannon shot and he's got really nice ball skills for a guy his size. He's the polar opposite in style from Urruti or Fernandez, which at least theoretically gives Caleb Porter options depending on the opponent. Whenever Urruti is back from injury, which seems like it could be this week, Adi will be more a part of the overall rotation and that makes the Timbers slightly less predictable. Still, Adi has been a really good addition to the Timbers. Whether or not he justifies the financial investment is question that will require a bit wider of a lens.
3. What are the expectations for the second half of the season among Timbers fans? Are the fans still expecting playoffs, as you would assume they were in preseason? How high do you think the Timbers could end the season?
Until the defense improves, the Timbers are going nowhere. It doesn't much matter how much they score because they'll always allow a few goals through poor marking or bad decisions. If, and it's a huge if, Ridgewell comes in and turns the defense around, Portland can definitely challenge for the playoffs. The roster is way too talented to be in competition with San Jose Earthquakes as the worst team in the Western Conference. That said, fans are starting to get antsy. There aren't that many games left this season and the team looks to be getting worse, not better, through the middle part of the year. Add in four Champions League fixtures between August and October and the schedule gets more difficult, not less. Merritt Paulson today (Tuesday) reiterated his guarantee that the team would make the playoffs, but that looks like about a 35/65 deal just now. Porter mentioned that if the team just wins eight or nine games, they'll have no trouble making the playoffs. Well that would double the current total in fewer games remaining. Obviously possible but with the more difficult stretch of the schedule approaching, Champions League midweek and a roster that's essentially set in stone with Ridgewell's arrival, I just don't know how it's going to happen.