The Vancouver Whitecaps have had an up and down year, starting the season with four straight clean sheets and taking just four losses into the month of July. Their quick climb in the standings was a surprising story for a team whose first season was a complete disaster.
But some mid-season changes to key personnel seemed to take the wind out of their sails in spite of the quality of those new pieces. Barry Robson, Kenny Miller, Dane Richards and Andy O'Brien were all excellent additions to the lineup, yet since July the team has gone 4-8-4 and are now desperately clinging to the final playoff spot at 42 points -- eight points fewer than playoff-bound teams closest to them in the standings.
In fact, if it weren't for an unexpected draw to Chivas USA, a late surge by FC Dallas was threatening to overtake Vancouver for the final playoff spot. With that prospect now highly unlikely, Vancouver is now free to hobble into the post-season with the flimsy confidence that anything can indeed happen in the playoffs.
Unfortunately for the Portland Timbers, the Caps are coming off their most dominant win of the season, albeit against Chivas USA. Four different Whitecaps scored against the bottom dwellers, ending a seven-game winless streak. Not that that's any impressive feat, but at the very least it's a sign of life.
In addition, the Whitecaps look to be completely healthy heading into Sunday's match, with only two players listed on the injury report -- John Thorrington and Darren Mattocks, both as "probable."
By now we Timbers fans have grown familiar with the stories in the Vancouver lineup. In theory, Vancouver sets up every game in a 4-2-3-1, but the personnel Martin Rennie uses makes it look more like a 4-2-4.
The experience maturity of their backline has proven tough to beat, managing a respectable goals-allowed total of 40 -- a massive improvement over their 2011 performance. Goalkeepers Joe Cannon and Brad Knighton have contributed to that success, combining for ten clean sheets on the year.
The rest of the team is made up almost entirely of strikers.
A bit of an exaggeration, yes, but there are honestly just three midfielders who have played at least 45 minutes per team game (since they joined Vancouver): Jun Marques Davidson, Barry Robson, and Gershon Koffie. The rest of the midfield has typically been manned by defenders like Alain Rochat and strikers like Camilo Sanvezzo, Dane Richards, and Kenny Miller.
The massive glut of strikers on the team allows Rennie to switch up his lineup to suit each opponent, but it means you have to go all the way back to the beginning of August to find a match in which he didn't change his midfield-forward configuration. He's used eight different lineups in eight subsequent games, going 1-5-2 in that stretch, scoring just three goals before their four-goal explosion on October 3.
Which gets us back to the personnel changes the Whitecaps made midseason. It's not for lack of quality that Vancouver has run into this losing streak -- the cause appears to be a lack of consistency in the attack. Aside from Barry Robson, who has played every game but one since joining the squad, the rest of the lineup has been in constant flux, denying Dane Richards and Kenny Miller the opportunity to get into a rhythm in their new team's attack.
Perhaps Rennie was experimenting with the lineup, searching for the right combination; if that's the case then it's a shame that none of the Western Conference's bottom four teams were able to punish him before he finally stumbled on success against Chivas.
If Rennie duplicates the lineup of the Chivas match, they will run the usual 4-2-3-1 featuring: Brad Knighton; Jordan Harvey, Jay DeMerit, Andy O'Brien, Lee Young-Pyo; Alain Rochat, Gershon Koffie; Camilo Sanvezzo, Barry Robson, Matt Watson; Kenny Miller.
Chance of a Timbers win: still 23%.