The Portland Timbers may have moved into a playoff spot for more than just three days this time around, but to stay there they will need to keep bringing in the points. The first three on offer since the Timbers 3-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps last weekend come in tomorrow morning's 10:00 AM match against Eastern Conference also-rans Toronto FC.
The Timbers' late-season push has come just as a number of vital partnerships have started to gel for the team.
Perhaps the most visible of the Timbers' partnerships is the pairing of Pa Modou Kah and designated player Liam Ridgewell in the center of the defense. With Kah's extended absence due to injury earlier in the year and Ridgewell's late arrival to the side, the Timbers' first choice centerbacks have only had four games together so far, but they are undefeated in those four.
However, just because they have gone undefeated does not mean they have partnered well. In their two matches against Vancouver, Ridgewell and Kah were part of two excellent shutouts. Against the Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes, however, the pair were part of a defensive effort that gave up five goals in two games, hardly a high water mark when compared to the Timbers' defensive prowess last season.
Given the small sample size, it remains to be seen if the defending that the Timbers showed against Vancouver is what they are capable of at all times or if it was simply a fluke enabled by the Whitecaps' unfortunate finishing and mystifying lineup choices.
The other pairing that has been at the center of the Timbers' performances all season has been Diego Chara and Will Johnson. With the familiarity of playing alongside each other for all of 2013 before the start of this season, Chara and Johnson have been curiously disjointed at times this season.
When the Timbers have looked bad it has been Johnson and Chara at the center of it, failing to provide the balanced contributions to the attack and the defense that we saw in 2013. When the Timbers have looked good, however, it has also been the performance of Johnson and Chara at the center of things, providing cover for each other and popping up in all the right places to turn the tide in the Timbers' favor.
Both pairs of players will need to show up and show up big tomorrow against a team that is, if anything, even more desperate for points than the Timbers.
At the start of the season it looked like the dawning of a new era for Toronto FC. Ryan Nelson, newly retired from his playing days, had taken over; Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe were the newly signed designated players, set to take the league by storm; and there was a general feeling of optimism surrounding the only team in MLS that has never made the playoffs.
A few short months later that was all in disarrey. Nelson was gone, Defoe wished he was gone, and everyone realized that this was the same old Toronto FC: destined for a finish outside of the playoff berths.
Still, however, hope remains for Toronto. With a game in hand on the 5th place Columbus Crew, Toronto's playoff dreams are still within reach. All that stand between them and their first ever appearance in the MLS playoffs are six games and their own institutional penchant for self-destruction.
Of course, the continued absence of Defoe as he continues recovering from the injury that has kept him out for the last two months has left Toronto without their biggest attacking threat. In fact, since Defoe went down injured, Toronto have only won once, a 3-0 romp over Chivas USA last weekend.
In Defoe's place, Toronto's third DP, Gilberto, a 25 year old Brazilian forward, has stepped up to carry the Toronto attack forward. Unfortunately for the Reds, Gilberto is no Defoe and, despite a modest output of seven goals and four assists, has not managed to be quite the offensive dynamo that they need.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 10:00 AM PT at BMO Field in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Portland Timbers: 9-8-12, 5th in the Western Conference
Toronto FC: 10-11-7, 5th in the Eastern Conference