The Portland Timbers have a lot to prove tomorrow night when they take on the Wilmington Hammerheads. Probably more so than any other MLS team playing in the Open Cup. After last year's embarrassing loss to fifth division side Cal FC, the Timbers need to prove that they can win in tournament-style high pressure games. Whether they start the regulars or not, though, is up to Caleb Porter.
Here's the breakdown:
Figuring out just who will start tomorrow is a bit of a tricky situation given that it's not a regular season game. Still, the fact that the TImbers have a bye week for this upcoming week should mean that Porter should start at least some of the normal crew, particularly in the back line.
Here's what he told Will yesterday during practice:
We look at it as an opportunity in the first game [of the US Open Cup] to get some key reserves major minutes. I don't really look at it as we are playing reserves, because really we can only pick eleven guys to start, so there are guys on the bench who are not really reserves, they are starters. At this point we want to get some of those guys major minutes.
Red flag. Still, this isn't the same team as last year and there's nothing to suggest that a team comprised of at least some reserve players can't perform admirably against a USL Pro side.
Looking at the backline, I fully expect Pa Modou Kah to start. Given the very little experience he has with the team, it would seem to be only natural that it's important to get him as acclimated as possible. Rauwshan McKenzie is another possibility, though Porter may also want to use this game to get Futty Danso back into match fit readiness after serving a single game suspension.
Looking into the midfield, I would expect one of the regulars to start: Diego Valeri, Will Johnson, or Diego Chara followed up with Kalif Alhassan, Sal Zizzo or Steven Evans. Michael Nanchoff has also been much more active during training recently. Still, don't expect the usual trio. Porter could decide to use the 4-4-2 that he used against D.C. United as well.
It's worth noting that Porter may want to continue resting Valeri as he recovers from a hamstring strain.
Finally, up top, I can almost guarantee you that Jose Adolfo Valencia (El Trencito) will get his first start of the season. The kid is in desperate need of minutes and this game would be the perfect time for him to shine. Pairing him up with Frederic Piquionne Sebastian Rincon seems like the most likely outcome at this point.
Here's my predicted starting line up:
Donovan Ricketts; Ryan Miller, Rauwshan McKenzie, Pa Modou Kah, Michael Harrington; Sal Zizzo, Kalif Alhassan, Will Johnson, Steven Evans; Jose Adolfo Valencia, Frederic Piquionne
Though really, this is a shot in the dark.
The Hammerheads are not one of the USL Pro's stronger teams this season. In fact, in 9 games they have exactly six points. That said, they're not the worst team in the league either above both the Rochester Rhinos and Antigua Barracuda FC, the latter of which has zero points. Ouch.
Still, I bring this up because these things can be misleading. Cal FC had an impressive run in the US Open Cup, but they weren't a strong side in their own league. Likewise, the Hammerheads could be a great tournament team, but a poor league team. Just ask Wigan Athletic and Manchester City of the EPL.
Looking at their stats it looks like Paul Nicholson is their impact striker with 3 goals for the season so far. In particular is seems like they're beginning to figure out their offensive end. In the last 6 games, they've scored 5 times. Perhaps that's not the best, but it at least shows they're able to hit the back of the net.
I would love to be able to tell you more, but using and interacting with the USL Pro and Wilmington's website (which is inextricably linked to the USL Pro site) is nigh impossible. Simple stuff like the Stats link for Wilmington is broken, or takes you to the 2012 stats. And figuring out the starting lineup for previous games? Seemingly impossible. Luckily, I was able to crawl their Twitter account for it... which, by the way, just retweets USL Pro.
(This is why we can't have nice lower divisions people!)
Wilmington's most recent starting lineup:
Tuttle, Daly, Evans, Wallace, Utterson, Parratt, Nicholson, Speres, Roberts, Isberner, Perry
The Timbers don't have a regular season game this weekend. This puts them in the unique position of being able to use their starters when they want to without worry of exhausting them this weekend. That said, this is still a great opportunity to get reserve players out in front of a real Jeld-Wen home crowd in a game that actually means a lot to the fans. Players like El Trencito, Nanchoff, Zizzo, and others need moments like this to keep their spirits high. Let's just hope it doesn't backfire on us.