The Portland Timbers continue their run at the US Open Cup today as they take on Sporting Kansas City in Kansas, a place where the defending MLS Champions have only lost once this year. With the two teams set to meet again on Friday in league play, tonight will reveal the priorities of both teams as they look to balance their playing time in the cup against securing a playoff spot in MLS.
One week removed from their 3-0 win over Orlando City U23, the Timbers have given very few hints as to what sort of lineup they will run out this evening against SKC. Caleb Porter told the press on Friday that the team would field lineups in both tonight's match as well as Friday's that would be very competitive and give the Timbers the best chance of winning both games.
The Timbers, who gave a number of their usual bench and reserve players a run out last week, seem to have a high level of confidence in their depth players right now, particularly in the attack, and we will likely see a large number of changes both up top and in the midfield between this week's two games.
Perhaps the hardest position to forecast today is the center of the midfield. Against Orlando the Timbers used a single-pivot defensive midfielder for the first time this year, giving Jack Jewsbury a look at the CDM spot. Although Porter has expressed a preference for playing this style in the past, the presence of Will Johnson and Diego Chara on the roster has always made it an impossible selection to make as the two box-to-box mids are best when unleashed to get forward as needed.
Now, with a week's rest for the team's twin engines, it is hard to image that Porter will elect to keep the pairing of Chara and Johnson on the bench again, instead likely playing one or both in both of this week's matches.
The rest of the Timbers' side that we see tonight will likely be a mixture of players recently returned from injuries, like Michael Harrington and Norberto Paparatto on the back line, and players looking to keep their spot in the 18 man roster as the rest of the team gets healthy, like Kalif Alhassan and Michael Nanchoff. The potentially hodge-podge nature of the squad could see the Timbers get off to a slow slow start, something they will have to watch for, but with the level of talent available they should be able to come together nicely.
Sporting Kansas City
While the Timbers are somewhat spoiled for choice in their selections for tonight's match, SKC have very few players uninjured or in camp that could be trusted to contribute at this point in the season. Following on the heels of a second place finish in the Supporters' Shield standings last year and a run through the playoffs that saw SKC take home the MLS Cup, the team-formerly-known-as-the-Wiz have been brutalized by injuries, losing swaths of starting players. Hardest hit has been the team's defense, losing Chance Myers and Ike Opara for the season, while Aurelien Collin is still sidelined with a hamstring strain that has kept him out since mid-May.
It is not just injuries that have left SKC looking threadbare, however, the World Cup has also raided their roster, taking yet another defender in Matt Besler, an All-Star last season and the Defender of the Year in 2012, and Graham Zusi, the team's offensive provider from his spot on the right wing.
All those absences leave Peter Vermes with no choice but to run out a pair of lineups that will look quite similar to each other this week, certainly giving the Timbers the edge on freshness in the second match of the week. For this first match, however, the Timbers can expect a group of hungry players looking to stake their claim on a spot in the XI going forward.
Among the players that the Timbers could see coming at the tonight are several speedy and direct wingers, the type that have gave the Timbers no end of trouble at the start of the season. Among that group will be a familiar face in Sal Zizzo, keyboardist extraordinaire, who could line up against the Timbers for the first time since his trade to SKC in December of last year.
Despite all of the missing players and mixed up lineups, SKC remains a potent threat. With players like Dom Dwyer and Claudio Bieler available, the SKC offense does not lack for punch even in the absence of Zusi and Benny Fielhaber, who is out with a shoulder injury. Pacing the rest of the Eastern Conference with 21 goals on the season, SKC may not compare to some of the Western Conference's offensive juggernauts, but they can still put them away and the Timbers will need to be wary of their attack.
Watch it on: Streaming on SportingKC.com
Portland Timbers: 4-4-8, 6th place in the MLS Western Conference
Sporting Kansas City: 6-5-4, 3rd place in the MLS Eastern Conference