The Portland Timbers hit the road this weekend to take on the Columbus Crew. The Timbers have currently only played the Ohio team once in Ohio since joining MLS. That game was in 2011 -- the 2012 game was in Portland -- and the Crew bested the Timbers in a 1-nil game. That said, the Timbers team of 2013 is completely different from the Timbers team of 2011 so don't necessarily expect the same result.
Here's the breakdown:
The Timbers are coming off an incredibly busy, but incredibly successful June month. They've also earned a well deserved break which is good news for the team at large. While the Timbers ultimately won their U.S. Open Cup game against FC Dallas, it was becoming plainly obvious that the squad was exhausted mentally and physically toward the latter half of the match.
Unfortunately, despite the team being well rested, a number of key Timbers players will be absent from the game due to CONCACAF Gold Cup duties. Rodney Wallace, who just recently returned to the Timbers, Will Johnson, and Frederic Piquionne will all be missing from the game against the Columbus Crew as well as future games. With their absence, the question turns to who replaces them.
Will Johnson will undoubtedly be the most challenging to replace. While Diego Chara plays a great game day in, day out. Will Johnson is very much the engine in the midfield keeping the team together. I don't know who will replace him against the Columbus Crew exactly but I have a few guesses, the first and most obvious being Jack Jewsbury. if Michael Harrington is better, it would be possible to slide Ryan Miller into the right back spot and move Jewsbury up to a more commanding position. Remember, in 2011, Jewsbury played much the same game as Will today.
As for Wallace's and Piquionne's usual respective positions? They'll undoubtedly be filled with Darlington Nagbe shifting over from the right, and Ryan Johnson who has always been considered the starting striker until very recently. Nagbe's switch to the left also isn't unheard of as Wallace recently spent time away from the team.
Here's my predicted starting lineup:
Donovan Ricketts; Ryan Miller, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Pa Modou Kah, Michael Harrington; Jack Jewsbury (c), Diego Valeri, Diego Chara; Kalif Alhassan, Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe
Undoubtedly one of the lesser known teams to Portland area fans, the Crew are having a bit of a mixed season so far at only 20 points total. In their last five games total they've managed to notch just a single win. That said, that win did come against the Montreal Impact so there's obviously some sort of talent on the squad.
Looking at that game, the Crew fielded a 4-4-1-1 formation with Argentine Federico Higuain sitting right below striker Dominic Oduro. Such a formation appeared to work out well for the team and Dominic Oduro specifically as they eventually won 2-nil off a Matias Sanchez goal (Oduro assist) followed by an Oduro goal in the 22nd minute. That said, a similar formation did not work out as well against the Chicago Fire one week later.
Of course, despite their most recent positive result, the man the Timbers' should really be looking out for is Federico Higuain. With a current 5 goals and 4 assists to his name in 2013 so far, there's a lot of potential for him to cause the Timbers some damage. The most recent reports show that he is expected to play on Sunday.
Finally, one bit of a good news heading into the match, Eddie Gaven, a pain for any team that plays against the Crew is out for the season with an ACL rupture. It's certainly unfortunate for the player, but his absence will undoubtedly be of benefit to the Timbers. Up until he went out with an injury, Gaven had accumulated 4 assists for the season so far.
The Timbers had a much needed bye week this past weekend. However, that same bye week allowed other Western Conference teams to either distance themselves from the Timbers or play catch up. Wins by the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Colorado Rapids have narrowed the gap the Timbers have built. Likewise, a draw by FC Dallas and a win by Real Salt Lake have put further emphasis on the Timbers needing a win this weekend in order to remain in contention for the coveted Supporters' Shield trophy. It won't be easy, considering the players missing, but if this season has taught us anything it's that the Timbers don't give up... ever.