On Sunday the Portland Timbers will have a showdown with the Houston Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium, facing off against the only team with a record worse than their own through the last five games. The Dynamo may have started their season off with a win, but in the last five games they have only managed two points to the Timbers' three. With each team hoping to get their season back on track, this game is of huge importance to both teams and both sets of fans.
The Timbers put together arguably their best performance of the season last Saturday when they took on Real Salt Lake in Sandy, UT, and out possessed and out shot RSL. The Timbers may have still come away with zero points for their efforts, something that has happened in each of this year's three away matches so far, but they have to take some level of confidence from the knowledge that they can still hang with the elite teams in the league, despite their early struggles.
Where the Timbers still need to improve is on the attacking end. Now two matches removed from the team's four goal haul against the Seattle Sounders, the Timbers have only scored once in the last two matches, grabbing an early goal against Chivas USA but failing to close out the game and getting shut out by RSL last week.
Through the first seven games, the Timbers have had chances, but they have not been of the same quality that fans saw last season; the four fantastic saves made by Nick Rimando last Saturday to preserve Salt Lake's shutout are prime examples. Against Houston, the Timbers will need to be ruthless and precise to beat Tally Hall, the Dynamo's long-serving keeper. The Timbers' goal scorers need to make a statement against Hall, particularly Darlington Nagbe, who has yet to open his account in 2014.
At the other end of the pitch the Timbers have looked much more potent, with the match against Seattle again being the exception, holding their opponents to a single goal in four matches so far this year despite a number of individual gaffs. Against the always dangerous RSL, the Timbers allowed only three shots on goal, holding strong until their 78' breakdown.
Caleb Porter expressed confidence in his back line at practice this week when asked about potential changes to the center-backs. However, with the recent rotation of Jack Jewsbury and Alvas Powell at right back, there remains the potential for some changes on defense. Jewsbury seems like the probable starter, given the Timbers' recent emphasis on getting back to the high possession style of play that the team saw so much success with last season, rather than the high tempo attack that the Timbers turned to in search of goals earlier this year.
They may have gotten their first win out of the way, but the Dynamo are in similar straits to the Timbers, having failed to win in their last six games, losing four in that span. The recent spate of injuries and suspensions suffered by Houston players has not helped the cause, although a number of their players could potentially be returning for tomorrow's match.
The Dynamo midfield is the biggest question mark going into the match with both Ricardo Clark and Brad Davis questionable as they recover from injuries. Davis has been out for several weeks while Clark went down in Wednesday's 4-0 loss against the New York Red Bulls. The pair are the heart of the team and provide their defensive bite and attacking creativity in the middle of the pitch.
Moreover, the loss of Davis takes away the Dynamo's most dangerous deliverer of free kicks and, with dangerous aerial players like former-Timber David Horst and young striker Will Bruin on the field, a decent delivery could do wonders against a Timbers side that was poor on set-pieces early in the season.
Horst will be at the heart of a backline that has given up four goals on two occasions already this season, but the Dynamo back four will be bolstered by the return of Kofi Sarkodie, who is returning from serving a red-card suspension. Another former Akron Zip, Sarkodie gives the Dynamo an additional wide threat on the right where he pushes forward regularly.
The Dynamo, despite all their struggles, are not a team to be underestimated and if the Timbers go into this match with anything less than laser focus they will likely suffer more heartache.
Timbers Keys to the Match
Run at the Dynamo defense. For all their abilities in the air, the Dynamo center backs are not particularly nimble and can be beaten by good runs with and without the ball.
Keep the midfield balanced. The Timbers' twin midfield engines, Will Johnson and Diego Chara, cover plenty of ground for the team, but the team's defense is left exposed when they fail to cover for each other.
Watch it on: KPTV
Kick off: 12:00 pm pacific at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, TX
Portland Timbers: 0-4-3, 8th place in the Western Conference
Houston Dynamo: 1-2-4, 8th place in the Eastern Conference