The Chicago Fire come to town tomorrow as one of only three teams that the Portland Timbers have never lost to in Major League Soccer and the pressure is on to keep that streak alive, as well as the Timbers' home undefeated streak in MLS regular season play. After a debut match last week against the Philadelphia Union that ended in a 1-1 draw, the Timbers are chomping at the bit to get back out onto the pitch and get their first win of the season.
Not So Moving: La Gata vs. the Union
After seeing plenty of movement from Gaston Fernandez during the pre-season, the attacker was uncharacteristically stagnant in his MLS debut.
Last weekend's 1-1 draw against the Union saw the Timbers controlling possession, moving the ball with a purpose, and getting into dangerous positions. Once they were in those dangerous spots, however, things seemed to break down. Shots were blocked, passes went awry, and the team's best opportunities went wanting. That lack of sharpness has been the Timbers' focus throughout this week as they prepare to take on the Fire.
The Timbers' front four will likely remain unchanged this week as Gaston Fernandez, Darlington Nagbe, Maximiliano Urruti, and Diego Valeri continue to gel into a cohesive unit this week. Thanks to Valeri's prolonged absence during the preseason as he recovered from offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia, the group has only played 147' together over the course of three games.
When the attack is on, the Timbers look like they should be capable of taking apart any team in MLS (or CONCACAF, for that matter). As the attacking group gets to better know each other's tendencies, the spacing, passing, and finally the goals will come, it is just a question of whether they will come against Chicago tomorrow.
The wildcard in the attack, Steve Zakuani, who came on and forced the corner kick that lead to the Timbers' last second equalizer against Philly, is unlikely to crack the starting line-up immediately, despite the different element his pace and one on one ability give the team on the wing. As Zakuani continues to get back to full game fitness he will likely have a role coming off the bench, especially with usual first-sub Kalif Alhassan nursing an injury all week.
The Timbers' biggest probable lineup chance will be at the back, where it looks like Futty Danso will get the start alongside Norberto Paparatto, replacing Pa Modou Kah. Kah was forced out of last Saturday's match with a hamstring injury and has not warmed up with the rest of the team this week. Despite his legendary toughness, proven by playing with a broken rib for much of last season, it is hard to imagine Caleb Porter risking Kah in the long term by playing him here and potentially aggravating the injury. That being said, Porter has been typically tight lipped about Kah's status, so it is difficult to rule out an appearance from him entirely.
The Fire are currently a team in flux. With the team's injuries and the new arrival of Frank Yallop in the Windy City, the Timbers face an early season match against a team that is still largely unknown.
The biggest question for the Fire is the health of reigning league Most Valuable Player, Mike Magee. After missing most of the preseason while holding out for a new, designated player contract, Magee missed out on the Fire's first game of the season thanks to an issue with his hamstring. A smart, quick finisher, Magee was one goal away from the golden boot last in 2013, his first year back in his hometown of Chicago, only to have Vancouver's Camilo Sanvezzo snatch the honor away from him. If he makes it onto the pitch, the Timbers' defenders will need to keep a constant eye on Magee, lest he find even the tiniest sliver of space in which to work his magic.
If Magee is fit and ready to go, there still remains the question of how the Fire will line up and how he will fit into the overall scheme of things. Last weekend against Chivas USA, the Fire ran out a 4-1-4-1, with Jeff Larentowitz acting as the lone holding midfielder in front of the defense.
As the Timbers face off against a Chicago side now being lead by head coach Frank Yallop, formerly of the San Jose Earthquakes, they could see an entirely different formation on the pitch this Sunday. Yallop has been a long-time disciple of the 4-4-2, a sight that Timbers fans will be familiar with after eight regular season encounters with the Earthquakes over the last three years. The potential to have Magee in the game alongside the Fire's other designated player, Juan Luis Anangono, an Equadorian national teamer with pace and skill, but who has yet to produce reliably in MLS, will certainly be a dangerous threat for the Timbers to face, but one that their high-possession and high-pressure game plan in designed to thwart.
The Fire could instead pack it in to the center of the pitch, playing a 4-2-3-1, as Caleb Porter suggested after practice on Thursday. Bringing in Logan Pause to help secure the center of the pitch seems like a probable course of action for Yallop, particularly with Magee and forward/attacking midfielder Chris Rolfe dealing with injuries this week. Although the 4-2-3-1 is a less offensively threatening formation, a parked bus is difficult to score on, as the Timbers have seen several times already this year and if Yallop takes the more conservative route it will be up to the Timbers to break down the veteran Chicago defense.
Timbers' Keys to the Match
Contain Mike Magee. Magee scored twenty-one goals in MLS last season, six of which were game-winners.
Find more space in the box. Opta lists 12 blocked shots taken buy the Timbers last week, if only a handful of those make their way on goal the Timbers could be on three points rather than one.
This is a game that the Timbers should be more than capable of winning. They are playing a team still in search of their new identity, who are potentially without several key players, and who are coming off a loss to Chivas USA. The only reason for the Timbers to lose this one is if they do not play up to their talent level.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kick off: 12:00 pm at Providence Park
Portland Timbers: 0-0-1
Chicago Fire: 0-1-0