The Portland Timbers continue this week's breakneck pace with their third game in nine days, taking on the Vancouver Whitecaps in a clash that could put either team on top of this year's Cascadia Cup standings. In the most civil leg of the three-way Cascadia rivalry, the Timbers will wager their seven game unbeaten run against Vancouver's run of five games without a loss as both teams look to move up the table.
With today's match coming at the end of a busy three game series, the Timbers will likely continue their recent squad rotation policy, making significant changes from the side that beat Chivas USA 2-0 on Wednesday evening, just like they did from last Saturday's 2-1 win over the New York Red Bulls.
At the center of the pitch Will Johnson will likely remain one of only two players to put in a full 270 minutes this week, joined in a that exclusive group by Donovan Ricketts, and he will likely line up alongside Diego Chara, who did not let his wrapped up, recently healed hand slow him down against Chivas. The Timbers' midfield pair will almsot certainly be kept busy, however, as the Timbers' back line will continue to have a patchwork look to it this weekend.
Michael Harrington may be fit to make a return to the starting XI today, following his three week absences following an ankle sprain suffered against D.C. United. Harrington got in his first full practice on Friday, so his return would be a hasty one and the Timbers may wish to give him time to fully heal up. Other options at fullback include Alvas Powell, who just returned from serving his two game red card suspension; Jack Jewsbury; Danny O'Rourke; and Jorge Villafana, who showed well against New York and Chivas, but, like Johnson, would be playing his third gamne of the week.
The center of the defense is still up in the air as well, with Rauwshan McKenzie, Pa Modou Kah, Futty Danso, and Norberto Paparatto all getting playing time, as well as Danny O'Rourke entering the picture as a possible piece at center back as well. Paparatto did sustain a head injury that took him out of the match against Chivas late in the game, but with a doctor's clearance, he could still be back in the lineup today. So far this season, Kah has been the only defender not subjected to an extended spell on the bench, so could he be next up for a sit, or will he continue to be the cornerstone of the Timbers' defense.
The Timbers' attack, meanwhile, seems clear, with the front four of Steve Zakuani, Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe and Maximiliano Urruti set to come back into the starting lineup. Despite Fanendo Adi's brace against Chivas, he will almost certainly be relegating to a mid-second half substitute, making way for the harrying, high pressure role of Urruti before being brought on to hold the ball up or run the channels, both of which he did will on Wednesday.
Coming off of a full week's rest and a short jaunt down the coast, the Whitecaps may be the away team today, but they have covered significantly less ground than the Timbers over the last week since their contentious 2-2 draw against the Seattle Sounders last Saturday. The Whitecaps will look to draw on their relative freshness as they attempt to take three points against the Timbers for the first time since the two teams joined MLS together in 2011.
The Whitecaps enjoy a free flowing, quick offense that is chock-full of young attacking talent. The name that should stand out the most to Timbers fans is Erik Hurtado, a Beaverton native that the Timbers tried to sign as a grandfathered-in homegrown player, only to have him scooped up by Vancouver with the
seventh fifth overall pick in the 2013 Superdraft. This year Hurtado has staked a spot as a regular in the Whitecaps starting eleven and has scored two goals, once in each of Vancouver's last two games. Generally lining up at striker and drifting wide right or just starting on the right wing, Hurtado will certainly torment whoever the Timbers put on that flank and it will be an important task, shutting down his powerful runs and tricky dribbling, as demonstrated when he made veterans Djimi Traore and Osvaldo Alonso look silly in route to scoring his Goal of the Week winner.
Elsewhere across the front line for the Whitecaps, the Timbers will also need to be wary of more young attackers in Kekuta Manneh and Sebastian Fernandez out wide, while newcomer Pedro Morales pulls the strings from the center of the pitch, playing a similar game to Diego Valeri. Through eight games, Morales has three goals and three assists and is consistently at the heart of Vancouver's attack, so it would not be too surprising to see either Chara or Johnson stuck to him like glue tonight.
While the average age of the Whitecaps' attacking players is in their early-twenties, the Vancouver defense did not feature a single player under the age of thirty in last weekend's match against Seattle. With Nigel Reo-Coker filling in at right back, Jordan Harvey at left back, and Jay Demerit and Andy O'Brien paired up in the center of the defense, the average age of the Vancouver defenders is 32 years old. It is not a particularly speedy defensive corps, but across they board the Whitecaps defenders are solid positionally and are both good in the air and at tackling on the ground. They will present a much stiffer test for the Timbers than either New York or Chivas did last week.
Keys to the Match
Shut down Morales. The Timbers have been torched by a fair number of Morales's before, so it would be extra-special to shut down this one. The fact that he is the origin of Vancouver's best attacking chances is also a pretty good reason.
Keep the shape at the back. With the defense undergoing changes yet again this week, it will be important for the Timbers' defense to come together as a unit. A lazy run back by a fullback after a foray down field or the failure to track a player in the box by a center back and the Timbers' defense could come apart again.
Win at home. These are three points that the Timbers need to make the playoffs. Also, it would be a big step to making sure that the Cup doesn't not have to spend the winter in Canada again.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kick off: 6:00 PM Pacific at Providence Park
Portland Timbers: 3-3-7, 7th place in the Western Conference
Vancouver Whitecaps: 4-2-5, 5th place in the Western Conference