With only four games to go in the season, every remaining match is vital for the Portland Timbers. The team will close out the season with matches against probably playoff locks FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake, but first the Timbers have a pair of matches against the San Jose Earthquakes, starting with tomorrow evening's match on the road.
The Portland Timbers come into this match missing two of their biggest contributors over the last two years; Diego Valeri, out due to yeloow card accumulation, and Will Johnson, done for the season after a tibia-fibulaa break in the Timbers' last match against Toronto FC. Stepping in to replace the pair will almost certainly be two like for like changes as the Timbers will bring in Gaston Feranndez for Valeri and Ben Zemanski for Johnson.
Although the replacement pair have similar styles to the players that they are coming in for, the Inclusion of Fernandez and Zemanski will cause some changes to the Timbers' formation. Zemanski, a more defensively inclined player than Johnson, will be more apt to sit back, freeing Diego Chara into the true box to box role that we saw from him earlier in the season. Fernandez, meanwhile, tends to operate as more of a second forward than a true No. 10. In concert, these changes will give the Timbers a somewhat different look, verging on a 4-1-3-2, rather than the team's usual 4-2-3-1.
The tweak in the Timbers' formation will give more consistent coverage to the Timbers' centerbacks and more versatility up top, while conceding some of the Timbers' usual dominance of the center of the pitch. While the Timbers' midfield has been far from invincible this season, they have continued winning the bulk of the possession in their matches this year, including a prodigious 56% of it in their previous match against San Jose.
It was that last match against the Earthquakes that saw the Timbers give up three goals on brief defensive breakdowns despite many aspects of the match, including out-shooting San Jose 32-12. Despite the breakdowns that have plagued the team all month, giving up less than two goals only once in September, the Timbers will stick with the centerback pairing of Pa Modou Kah and Liam Ridgewell.
There is some reason to hope that Kah and Ridgewell will have improved their play together after a month of working alongside each other. The team's fourth shutout of the season, the 3-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, came just two weeks ago and saw the Timbers shut down a struggling Vancouver side.
In last week's game against Toronto, the Timbers' defense generally looked competent outside of the three free-kick goals conceded to give Toronto the win. Even in those instances, however, the problems did not seem to stem from issues with the centerbacks, but with lapses from all over the field giving Toronto the opportunity to runs some well executed set pieces.
San Jose Earthquakes
Like the Timbers, the Earthquakes will be missing some vital players for this match. Fortunately for the people watching the match, Steven Lenhart is on the injured list for San Jose. An undoubtedly effective player, Lenhart gets under the skin of everyone (the players, the ref, the coaches, the fans) and draws attention away from Chris Wondolowski, giving the poacher the opportunity to get into the tiny slivers of space in which he is so effective.
Without Lenhart, however, Wondolowski will likely be paired up with Matias Perez Garcia, a very different sort of player than Lenhart. An Argentinian with impressive dribbling and passing skills, Garcia will likely play as more of a second striker behind Wondolowski, looking to go at players and create opportunities, rather than tying up defenders and throwing elbows.
Garcia, individually, is certainly a more dangerous attacking player than Lenhart, but it remains to be seen how he meshes with the Earthquake's leading scorer. Timbers fans may have seen Garcia before, he was on the sidelines of the previous match up between the two teams, but he was still recovering from an injury at the time and was not able to join the San Jose 18. Tomorrow's match will be just the fifth for Garcia in a San Jose uniform and only his second start since returning from injury.
The Earthquakes will have one other change to their lineup from the last time that they faced off against the Timbers: the inclusion of new arrival Pablo Pintos at right back, replacing the rangy and quick but defensively suspect Shawn Francis in the starting XI. Pintos is a new arrival in San Jose, having only played two matches with the team so far, but so far looks like an improvement.
Of course, that improvement at right back has yet to pay off for San Jose, who have gone winless in their last ten matches. The Earthquakes have eked out some draws in that time period, including holding both the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders to 1-1 scorelines, but they have rarely looked likely to win.
Watch it on: NBCSN
Kickoff: 8:00 PM PT at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, CA
Portland Timbers: 9-9-12, 6th place in the Western Conference
San Jose Earthquakes: 6-12-11, 8th place in the Western Conference