The Portland Timbers host Sporting Kansas City tomorrow night in the team's second to last home game of the 2015 MLS regular season. With both teams vying for a playoff spot and the San Jose Earthquakes lurking just below the red line and waiting to pounce on any team that falls off the pace, this match is a vital one for both teams.
Of course, the Timbers faced Kansas City just three games and four weeks ago, dominating the match and pouring on the pressure but failing to find the back of the net in a 0-0 draw that epitomized the Timbers' scoring woes this year (even more so than the following week's 2-0 loss to the Red Bulls).
This week the Timbers will certainly hope to carry forward the scoring form -- kick the ball at Fanendo Adi, hope he scores -- that propelled them to their first win in five matches, last Saturday's 2-1 win over the Columbus Crew. Finally beating Kansas City this season, however, will require a complete performance from the Timbers; the attack will be vital, but the defensive side of the ball, which has undoubtedly been the Timbers' strength this season, will need to be organized and strong if they want to shut Sporting down.
For the second week in a row the Timbers will be without their team captain, Will Johnson, after the holding midfielder had surgery to remove the screws left in his leg after last year's tibia-fibula break that sidelined him for a large part of the season. The Timbers are no strangers to running out different midfield pairings this season, mixing and matching Johnson, Diego Chara, Ben Zemanski, Jack Jewsbury, and George Fochive. Of course, Johnson has only played 12 games for the Timbers this year and Zemanski did not make it out of the preseason before tearing his ACL.
In the Timbers' match against the Crew last weekend, it was Jewsbury who was called in to partner Chara in the Timbers' two holding midfield spots and the pairing, with help from strong defensive play from Darlington Nagbe and Rodney Wallace out on the wings, had a relatively quiet match: the ideal for any player with a defensive bent. As always, Chara was mixing it up, leaving Jewsbury free to mostly stay at home, shielding the back line and cleaning up any errant balls in the center of the pitch. While the results with that pairing in the center of the pitch have not always been so smooth, the two compliment each other well and, while Fochive has been good this year, it is hard to imagine that he would displace either Chara or Jewsbury in the Timbers' XI.
Behind the holding midfielders there should be no changes to the Timbers' back line from last week when they were able to run out their first choice back five. That will, however, represent a change from the last time the Timbers faced Kansas City, when the Timbers were forced by suspensions and international absences to play Norberto Paparatto and Taylor Peay for Liam Ridgewell and Alvas Powell.
While Powell for Peay won't make much of a change for the Timbers, the return of Ridgewell always presents something of a challenge for the Timbers. The Ridgewell-Nat Borchers pairing that has been the Timbers' default this season has been successful, but when it doesn't work -- for a moment or a match -- it really doesn't work. Both players are organizers and neither is by default an aggressive ball winner; Paparatto is exactly that, as well as a towering defensive presence on aerial balls. In this match, the tweak to the Timbers' back line against Kansas City will hopefully be a non-factor for the success of the defense, but against a team that loves throwing balls into the box both from crosses and long throw ins, and quick, skillful play through the center of the pitch, both of Paparatto's defining traits seem like ones that would be ideal.
The front four for the Timbers is the group with the most uncertainty on the pitch. With Lucas Melano and Maximiliano Urruti vying for starting minutes, and Dairon Asprilla always waiting in the wings for his chance on the wings, the Timbers could change things up from last match. But that doesn't seem likely.
After the win against the Crew, much of the emphasis from Caleb Porter was on the hard work and chemistry that Wallace brings to the left wing and the explosiveness and aggression that Nagbe brings to the right. Diego Valeri is Diego Valeri in the center.
That just leaves Adi up top and, coming off a spell on the bench followed by scoring the eighth brace of his MLS career -- two goals that just happened to be the Timbers' first two goals in a game in over a month -- against the Crew. The Timbers need a hot hand scoring goals right now as the scoring by committee that made the team so fearsome in 2013 and 2014 is just not happening right now, but even more than that they need a player up top who is going to be able to bring other players into the attack, something that Adi has improved at steadily this season. If anybody else on the Timbers is going to start scoring again with any regularity -- we're looking at you Nagbe/Valeri/Wallace -- Adi's ability to draw defenders and lay off simple balls around the opposition box is going to be key.
Watch it on: KPDX
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 12-10-8, 6th place in the Western Conference
Sporting Kansas City: 12-9-9, 5th place in the Western Conference