After last year's run to the US Open cup semifinals, the Portland Timbers are eager to reach the same heights this year in a bid for the team's first silverware since joining Major League Soccer. To get there, the Timbers will need to go through their hated rivals, the Seattle Sounders, who are currently on top of the standings in MLS.
For the Timbers it is not as simple as just throwing their best players out on the field to take on Seattle. While the Open Cup match is important, the Timbers have a quick turnaround to Sunday when they will return to Washington and head to Seattle proper to take on the Sounders in MLS play.
The two games in quick succession, while not at crammed in as some of the Timbers more congested stretches earlier in the season, will certainly necessitate some movement of players in and out of the starting line-up.
For some positions, however, the changes that the Timbers could make are limited by a recent injury bug that has hit the team. At the forward position, Maximiliano Urruti is out with an unspecified knock suffered last week between the Timbers' pair of matches against Sporting Kansas City. Meanwhile, the back line is missing the Timbers two senior-most defenders as Pa Modou Kah recovers from the achilles tendinitis that has plagued him this season and Norberto Paparatto comes back from his most recent ankle injury.
In Urruti's absence the Timbers will need to lean on new designated player Fanendo Adi at the forward position. After scoring four goals in his first two starts with the Timbers, Adi has cooled somewhat, being held off the score sheet in his last three games. Adi has continued to find chances, taking 14 shots over the last three matches, but as teams have adjusted to his style of play and recognized the danger that he presents the chances have been much more difficult to convert, with only four of those attempts going on goal.
The absences of Kah and Paparatto will also force the Timbers into a specific set-up, barring some creative lineup shuffling from Caleb Porter, as Danny O'Rourke and Rauwshan McKenzie remain the only Timbers with any experience playing centerback at the professional level. The pairing held up well against a tricky LA Galaxy attack on Friday in Los Angeles, but were undone by McKenzie's unfortunate own goal late in the match.
Timbers fans may be waiting with bated breath for the team's new acquisition, Liam Ridgewell, to arrive and step in as the savior of the team's often error-prone defense, but the English defender is still waiting on a visa approval from the embassy before he can join the team and will need time to get match fit, ruling him out for tomorrow's match.
Where the Timbers do have some flexibility is in the midfield. Diego Chara will get the start at the box to box spot that he usually occupies alongside Will Johnson and will be encouraged to burn off some of his boundless energy harrying the Sounders since he will be unable to play in Sunday's rematch due to an accumulation of yellow cards. While Johnson has been a fixture in the Open Cup as well as in league play this year for the Timbers, it seems likely that he will be given a rest for this match and Jack Jewsbury inserted into the lineup in his stead. Not only would this give Johnson a break after putting in many long shifts this season, it would also allow Chara to roam further forward, leading the break and generally wreaking havoc in an advanced position, with Jewsbury more likely to stay at home in front of the defense.
In the No. 10 position the Timbers could go with either Diego Valeri or Gaston Fernandez, but it seems likely that the team will give the start in the center of the pitch to "La Gata" Fernandez, who has been at the center of the Timbers' attacking efforts in the Open Cup this year, scoring a brace in each of the Timbers' two games so far and pulling the strings all across the field. Valeri, who has put in a significant number of minutes since fully recovering from the offseason sports hernia surgery that hampered him at the start of the season, could move to one of the Timbers' wide midfield spots, a position from which he has meshed well with Fernandez.
For their part, the Sounders are just as much a mess of missing and injured players as the Timbers are, with missing key contributors in both the attack and defense. The Sounders' high profile stars, Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin, are the most obvious players that Seattle have been missing as they have been with the USMNT at the world cup in Brazil for the last month, but equally important to the Sounders' fortunes so far this season is Obafemi Martins, who is near the top of the league in both goals, 8, and assists, 6.
Dempsey and Yedlin are both expected to be available to play this week, but it remains unknown if they will be thrown into tomorrow's midweek game or given additional time to rest after their time with the US. Dempsey in particular seems likely to get some rest after playing 387 minutes for the US this World Cup, all but three minutes in the team's four games plus extra time against Belgium.
Although Yedlin impressed with the US, he still played relatively few minutes, getting on the pitch in two matches as a substitute. If either of Seattle's recently returned World Cup veterans should be ready to jump right back in to the lineup, Yedlin seems the more likely. The return of Yedlin would also give the Seattle back line a dynamism that they have been lacking in recent matches with Jalil Anibaba at right back. While Anibaba is a talented defender and a passable outside back, Yedlin is a markedly more influential attacking player, whose play adds as much to the attack as it does to the defense.
Without Dempsey and Martins, the Sounders attacked is decidedly patchwork, relying on several MLS veterans who have done the rounds in the league and have connection to Portland. Journeyman striker Chad Barrett, who attended South Ridge Highschool, and Kenny Cooper, who is Kenny F***ing Cooper, have been filling in the Seattle front line recently. Still, the pair have been quietly getting the job done, with the exception of last weekend's away loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps where the Sounders attack just could not break through.
Watch it on: Streaming on Timbers.com
Kick off: 7:30 PM PT at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, WA
Portland Timbers: Defeated Orlando City U-23 and Sporting Kansas City in Open Cup play, 4-5-9 in MLS
Seattle Sounders: Defeated PSA Elite and the San Jose Earthquakes in Open Cup play, 11-4-2 in MLS