Tomorrow the Portland Timbers head to Los Angles to take on the LA Galaxy, a team near the top of the table coming off a huge 3-0 win in Seattle. The stars seem to be aligning for LA as they start to make use of the games in hand that they have been hoarding all season, but the Timbers are making a push of their own and will put their strangely decent road record on the line as they try to move into playoff contention.
So far this season the Timbers have fought the Galaxy to stalemate, tying their first two matches of the season 1-1 in Portland and 2-2 in LA as both teams have struggled to take the upper hand. The 2-2 tie in LA on the 4th of July looked destined to be a Timbers' win until the final minutes of the game when an own goal from Rauwshan McKenzie under heavy pressure from the Galaxy evened things up.
For Caleb Porter, a significant part of the always-entertaining matches between the two teams is that both are trying to get the ball down and play it; as Porter puts it, "it will be a game of football."
The Timbers have not had many games of football this year without their opponent packing in the defense, fouling their attacking players, and generally stopping play whenever possible. In LA, however, the Timbers will have an opponent and a playing surface that are conducive to the wide-open passing and possession style that they like to play. At the StubHub Center the Timbers will have one of the largest pitches in the league on which to work.
With the added length of the pitch, ten yards longer than at Providence Park, the Timbers will be able to spread the midfield and cycle possession around the field, something they did very well against the Montreal Impact in last weekend's road win.
The Timbers' attack, which has been the team's strong point this year and is among the most prolific in the league, is also the Timbers' biggest question going into this match. In recent matches the Timbers have alternated Fanendo Adi and Maximiliano Urruti as the team's lone forward at the top of the formation. Against the Impact Urruti got the start, bagging his eighth goal of the season and generally combining well along the ground with Gaston Fernandez, Darlington Nagbe, and Diego Valeri. Adi, however, gives the Timbers an aerial presence like nobody else on the team and, when given the ball, is capable of making things happen on his own, even if he does not play as well with others as Urruti.
Who gets the run out will largely depend on the structure of the Timbers' midfield. Against the Impact the Timbers went without a true left winger, keeping Rodney Wallace and Steve Zakuani off the pitch in favor of the outside-in runs of Nagbe and Valeri. Against the Galaxy, however, we may see Wallace get his second start of the year as the Timbers will need someone who can contribute both in the attack and on defense, something that Wallace does better than anyone else the Timbers have deployed on the left to date. If Wallace is given the start, his crosses into the box box for Adi could be a deciding factor and one that Urruti may not be able to make the most of.
On defense the Timbers will also have some choices to make. While the pairing of Liam Ridgewell and Danny O'Rourke has held down the center of the defense for the Timbers' last two games, both wins, the team has not been solid on defense, particularly in giving up two goals to the Impact, the league's most anemic attack.
While Ridgewell is a lock to start, O'Rourke has been at the center of too many of the Timbers' recent concessions to go unquestioned. Now, with Norberto Paparatto back to full fitness, the Timbers could see their tallest possible centerback pairing in action. Although Paparatto also had his blunders at the beginning of the season, he has been much more under control in recent appearances, although he has been limited by a number of recent injuries.
For their part, the Galaxy remain very much the same team that they have been for the last two years; stingy on defense, dangerous on the counter, and capable of breaking down their opponents.
The attacking duo of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane remain two of the most effective forwards in the league. Following on the heels of an MVP caliber season in 2013, Keane is still tearing up the league having notched ten goals and six assists. Donovan's number are less guady with four goals and six assists, but those four goals were enough to make him the league's all-time leading scorer.
Although the Galaxy's attacking players are among the most high-profile in the league, it is their defense that have made them one of the league's stronger teams so far this year. Having only given up sixteen goals so far this season, three to the Timbers, the Galaxy are the only team in the league to have given up fewer than one goal per game played.
The return of Omar Gonzalez from injury and international absence has played a big part in the Galaxy's success at the back this year as the league's original defensive MVP has been on the pitch for four of the Galaxy's six shutouts this year.
The most glaring weakness of the Galaxy defense has to be fullback Robbie Rogers. A wide midfielder for most of his career, Rogers made one of his first appearances at left back in the Galaxy's last match against the Timbers and was generally tormented by Valeri. Since then Rogers has settled into his position and looked much less vulnerable, capping his run at left back off with an excellent performance against the off kilter Sounders on Monday.
Watch it on: NBC
Kickoff: 11:30 AM PT at the StubHub Center in Carson, CA
Portland Timbers: 6-6-9, 7th place in the Western Conference
LA Galaxy: 8-4-6, 3rd place in the Western Conference