It may not be a "must-win" match, but the Portland Timbers need to come away from today's match against Toronto FC with three points to solidify their hold on the fifth and final playoff position in the Western Conference. There is still plenty of season yet to go, but at some point the Timbers need to turn the corner and begin their playoff push, so what better time than now?
Here is what you need to know about the two teams:
The injuries just keep coming for the Timbers and, when paired with a suspension and a few untimely international call-ups, have left the team looking very thin at the moment. Luckily players are starting to return to fitness now with Will Johnson, Bright Dike, and Futty Danso all looking like good bets to make the 18 today. The return of Will Johnson is especially fortuitous, as his pairing in the midfield with Diego Chara will go a long way toward filling some of the holes that the Timbers are still dealing with both in defense and in the attack.
The ankle injury that took Frederic Piquionne out of the match against the Vancouver Whitecaps back at the beginning of August is taking longer than anticipated to heal and has combined with Ryan Johnson's call up to the Jamaican National Team (for whom he did not see the pitch last night) to leave the Timbers with neither of their regular starters at the forward position this season. Enter Trencito. The youngster will likely get his first start of the season today after getting gradually increasing minutes as the season has progressed, particularly with the recent absence of Piquionne. Bright Dike's return to health, if not full fitness, will also give the Timbers another option off the bench in the attack late in the match.
At the other end of the pitch, things are a little more of a mess. Milos Kocic will deputize for Donovan Ricketts, who is also away with Jamaica (he, at least, played last night, posting a shutout in the process). From there, though, the uncertainty begins. The Timbers suddenly find themselves without any of their four potential choices at right back thanks to injuries for Jack Jewsbury and Ryan Miller, a suspension for Ben Zemanski, and another call up to the Jamaican National Team for Alvas Powell (who started last night but came out injured in the 44'). Who will fill in at RB is anyone's guess at this point; Sal Zizzo, Rauwshan McKenzie, and Rodney Wallace have all been suggested as potential stopgap measures, but none of them are ideal choices.
Regardless of who the Timbers field, expect the team to push forward aggressively from the get go with at least one fullback bombing forward with some regularity. The Timbers will certainly look to stretch the pitch and take advantage of a TFC defense that have conceded 35 goals this season (weirdly, five of the ten teams in the east have given up 35 goals).
Our expected Timbers line-up: Milos Kocic; , , , Michael Harrington; Will Johnson, Diego Chara; , Kalif Alhassan , .
The Timbers are not the only ones dealing with injuries and absences. If anything, Toronto is making every bit as good a case for your pity in the missing players department as the Timbers. In addition to five call ups that TFC must do without this weekend, they are also missing both of their designated players, Matias Laba and Danny Koevermans, to injuries.
Toronto do feature two former Timbers in their line-up with Joe Bendik and Jeremy Hall looking like good bets to see the field this evening. Of the two, Bendik has had by far the most notable season and could be looking at a Brad Guzan-esque development curve in Toronto. Guzan, a well touted talent out of college, was thrust into the starting keeper role for a woeful (record-settingly so) Chivas USA team back in 2005. Bendik has taken a little longer to find a chance to start and has had a little more to work with than those early Chivas teams, but getting shelled week in and week out tends to bring out either the best or the worst in a keeper and so far Bendik has seemed to rise to the challenge, saving 65% of the shots taken on his goal (an even bigger accomplishment given some of the chances that Toronto have given up at times).
If the Toronto defense has been fragile, their attack has been flaccid. With Laba, brought in to be a playmaker much like Diego Valeri, and Koevermans, TFC's leading scorer in 2012, out, Toronto have only scored 23 goals this year. To put that in perspective, Real Salt Lake have scored 52 goals in two more games, more than twice Toronto's strike rate. Robert Earnshaw looked like he might be the answer to Toronto fans' prayers after scoring five goals in the the season's first six games, but he has only scored once since then. The goals have just not been coming for Toronto recently and, looking at the players available to manager Ryan Nelson, it is hard to see where the scoring will come from.
Our expected TFC line-up: Joe Bendik; Jonas Elmer, Gale Agbossoumonde, Steven Caldwell, Richard Eckersley; Bobby Convey, Jeremy Hall, Darel Russell, Reggie Lambe; Andrew Wiedeman, Robert Earnshaw
The Timbers have to win this, right? I mean, come on.
In all seriousness, if the Timbers do not win this game against a team that has flown all the way across the country, who have not won a single game against Western Conference opposition this season, then something is seriously wrong. Plenty has been made of the fact that Toronto's players may be fighting for their jobs, but when your team is a mismanaged mess year after year that will only take you so far.
Watch it on: KPTV
Kick off: 8:00 pm at Jeld-Wen Field
Portland Timbers: 39 points, 5th in the Western Conference.
Toronto FC: 22 points, 9th in the Eastern Conference.