The Portland Timbers will be taking the field this evening to play against the New York Red Bulls, the team that spends the very most on their roster with two designated players and a host of attacking options. Meanwhile the Timbers, while not as spendy, will be playing at home, their first regular season match since last year, with an almost entirely new look and tactical outlook. While some of yesterday's games might have been fun to watch, none of them will hold a candle to today's affair.
Let's take a look at both sides:
The Timbers are expected to be at full strength today with most of their injuries coming from players who either wouldn't be starting anyways, or would be in heavy contention for that spot. As such, it's safe to say that we can expect the team to be full of regular starters.
Given that Caleb Porter has been keen on the 4-2-3-1 formation for quite a while, I would expect him to play the same tonight. Here's my predicted starting line up:
Donovan Ricketts; Ryan Miller, Mikael Silvestre, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Michael Harrington; Diego Chara, Will Johnson; Kalif Alhassan, Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe; Ryan Johnson
Exactly the same players as Will, though he had them in a 4-3-3.
The big, notable addition for today's game is Mikael Silvestre. The Timbers went without him for the entire preseason tournament due to negotiations and then the visa process. The former Manchester United defender should be instrumental in ensuring the Timbers' backline is in order against the likes of Thierry Henry. On that note, Silvestre's experience against Henry in the EPL as well as playing with him on the French international team should come in handy. Very few layers in MLS should have the kind of insight on Henry as Silvestre.
Really, the important thing to look out for is how Diego Valeri will orchestrate the game. We've seen him work magic in the preseason, but those games are a far departure from the regular season. If Diego Chara and Will Johnson can keep the midfield locked up, it should allow Valeri to stretch his creative muscles and get the ball to Alhassan, Nagbe, or Ryan as they run up top. The only way Valeri works, however, is if he's able to focus on not get bogged down by an overbearing New York midfield.
Finally, we saw what Ryan Johnson could do against the San Jose Earthquakes in the preseason. If he can step up today and score at least a brace it would be not only a huge benefit to the team, but for himself as well. Remember, Frederic Piquionne is finishing up his own visa process. Ryan needs to prove that the #1 spot is his tonight.
New York Red Bulls
Looking toward the other side of the field is a team that looks very familiar, despite the New York side undergoing almost as dramatic a change as the Portland Timbers.
First up, the two heavy hitters are most definitely designated players Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill.
Henry has been known to score in Portland before and will undoubtedly be the one orchestrating the attack up front. I'm not sure if he'll be played as an out and out striker or more of a drifting creative forward, but he'll be dangerous regardless. Silvestre's intuition on him tonight will be key.
Cahill, on the other hamd, will be the dominant force in the midfield. While his days with Everton seemed to have him as an attacking forward of sorts (correct me if I'm wrong though, not super familiar with Everton) the few games of the Red Bulls I watched last year had him more as a box-to-box type midfielder. Expect him to be constantly hassling Valeri.
Other notable additions to New York include former Real Salt Lake stalwarts Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave. Both players should be fairly well known among Timbers fans as they consistently gave grief to the entire Western Conference the last couple seasons. Expect them to start tonight and expect our own Will Johnson to be in key in knowing both players in and out as they were team mates for a number of years.
Finally, there's Juninho. Honestly, I'm not sure what to make of him. He's got decades of experience. He's undoubtedly one of the best free kick takers in the league. But he's also old and in as physical and athletic a league as MLS is, I'm not entirely sure he'll be able to keep up. Still, he's my wildcard for the match tonight. Keep an eye on him if he starts.
We saw how yesterday's games played out and, while a single game certainly does not make a season, the field has been left wide open for the Timbers to get an early jump on the Western Conference, especially over the likes of the Seattle Sounders.
That said, the Timbers certainly didn't get the easiest draw of the teams for a home opener and anybody who thinks that home openers are a lock for a win didn't watch the Philadelphia Union, Chivas USA, or Seattle Sounders game last night. As of this moment, home opening teams are currently winning 50% of the time.