The Portland Timbers will be back in action tonight, taking on Sporting Kansas City in their first game of the 2015 preseason, and we might just get to watch it if Merritt Paulson and the local college students that he dragooned into streaming the game can make it happen.
Playing at the Kino Sports Center in Tucson, Arizona, the Timbers will get their first look at SKC since June. More than just a chance to hit the field, the match will give the Timbers a chance to become better aquatinted with the new arrivals in the Western Conference.
For their part, the Timbers will be planning on rolling out two separate XI's for tonight's match, one group made up of starters and the other of reserves. The plan is for each XI to play a full 45' half, presumably matched up against similar setups from SKC, although there is no guarantee that this will happen, as we saw in several of last season's preseason matches.
If the sides in Tuesday's 11v11 scrimmage are any indication, the first group that we see will have Adam Kwarasey at keeper; a back line consisting of Alvas Powell, Nat Borchers, Norberto Paparatto, and Jorge Villafana; Ben Zemanski and Diego Chara as holding midfielders; Darlington Nagbe and Rodney Wallace on the wings; Gaston Fernandez in the No. 10 role; and Fanendo Adi as the lone striker.
While the match will certainly not be the free flowing attack of the Timbers at their best, this setup is very similar to what we saw from the team at the end of last year with addition of Borchers, a known quantity in the league, and the forced substitution of Fernandez for the injured Diego Valeri.
Borchers may not prompt many questions from the fans, but a huge question for the Timbers comes from the other big change from last year: can "La Gata" Fernandez step up and run the Timbers attack? Can he mesh with the varied talents that made the Timbers' such an effective goalscoring squad? In limited engagements Fernandez has proven effective, but his impact remains to be seen.
The Timbers' second group will be a much more interesting one when it comes to new faces. Jake Gleeson will most likely start at keeper, anchoring a back line of Jack Jewsbury, Danny O'Rourke, Taylor Peay, and Jeanderson; in the holding midfield spots will be Nick Besler and George Fochive; Schillo Tshuma and Dairon Asprilla will man the wings; Michael Nanchoff will be given the driver's seat, pulling the strings from the No. 10 spot; and Maximiliano Urruti will play at the top of the formation.
There are plenty of intriguing players to watch in this second group with newcomers Jeanderson and Asprilla set to prove their worth and Urruti always on the cusp of that starting spot with the first XI.
Besler is also an interesting prospect in this match. While it certainly would have added some spice to see him match up against his older brother Matt, one of SKC's designated players and currently away with the USMNT, he is still worth watching as a genuine talent and the first true defensive midfielder that the Timbers have had occasion to play since Jack Jewsbury filled the role in 2011-12 before taking over the right back spot.
While neither Will Johnson, who is still recovering from his broken tibia and fibula and will not play tonight, nor Diego Chara has the temperament and skill set to act as the Timbers' lone pivot in front of the defense, Besler could be that sort of player, potentially giving the Timbers a much different look in the center of the pitch some time down the road.
The second group contains potential, but it will still be a significant drop off from the play of the first group, both in terms of cohesion and skill.
Sporting Kansas City
After looking like a potential powerhouse in the making, a team of quality among the riff-raff of the Eastern Conference, SKC imploded in epic fashion last season, barely clinging to a playoff berth and washing out in the early going to an also-underachieving New York Red Bulls side in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Things started looking bad for SKC when the allure of transfer fees got the better of them mid-season and, suddenly, what had looked like a strong season was suddenly a rebuilding year as the team tried to put the pieces back together following the sale of midfield lynchpin Uri Rosell to Portugal's Sporting CP. Half a year later and the team that looked poised for long-term success has continued to dismantle itself, while bringing in a series of players that hardly inspire confidence.
SKC has not been entirely taken apart yet, however, and some significant talents remain on their roster. Matt Besler and Grabam Zusi remain the team's pair of USMNT players and designated players, and are surrounded by a corps of solid but midfielders and defenders who can get the job done. Benny Feilhaber, Chance Myers, Ike Opara, and Seth Sinovich all inspire a sort of general approval of their level of play.
Perhaps the one real spark of excitement that remains from last year's roster is goal-scorer extraordinaire, Dom Dwyer. In the contention for the Golden Boot last season for much of the year, Dwyer scored 22 goals for SKC in 2014 thanks to a natural nose for goal and a willingness to shoot the ball whenever possible.
Of course, Besler is with the national team and SKC, like the Timbers, have their own injuries to contend with as Myers and Opara work their way back to fitness and will not be available tonight.
Rosell was not the only roster piece lost from last season. Role players Soony Saad, CJ Sapong, and Claudio Bieler are all no longer with SKC, and all-star defender Aurelian Collen was traded away, leaving a surprising hole in the center of the once-vaunted SKC defense.
There have been some new players brought in, most notably former Wigan man and retiring prodigal son Roger Espinoza. Espinoza will add some bite to the SKC midfield and some danger from wide areas across the pitch from Zusi, balancing out their attack and, in theory, creating more room in which Zusi will be able to operate.
The clubs other signings from overseas, keeper Luis Marin and forward Krisztian Nemeth are not particularly inspiring. Marin seems to be about on par with the majority of foreign keepers signed by MLS clubs: respected, old, and potentially good. Nemeth, meanwhile, has some pedigree, having signed with Liverpool as a youngster, but will be at his 10th club in the 10 years he has been playing professionally and has not exactly lit up the scoresheet as a forward.
In all, the new-ish look of SKC does not seem like a step forward from where they were at this time last year. It is a hard sell to say that they are a step forward from where they were at the end of last year, even. However, that is what the preseason is for. Will Espinoza usher in a new era of midfield dominance? Will the sum of the new pieces for SKC be greater than their apparent whole? We will get our first glimpse of the answers to those questions tonight.
Watch it on: Streaming on Timbers.com
Kick off: 5:00 PM Pacific