The Portland Timbers are so close to their second playoff berth in the team's MLS era that you can taste the postseason in the air. However, there remains one final hurdle for the team: the Colorado Rapids.
The Timbers last faced the Rapids back in late May, a 2-1 win and the second of the Timbers' historic four win run that catapulted the Timbers back up the table and into contention for the playoffs. With all the turmoil in the second half of the season, memories of that match are now hazy and, with the Rapids' rapid descent to the bottom of the Western Conference, there has been little reason to watch them since.
So, who and what are the Colorado Rapids?
In the 2015 season, like the 2014 season, the Rapids have been hit hard by injuries, but throughout the season and regardless of who they have on the pitch, Colorado have remained a steadfastly defense first team. Regularly putting ten men behind the ball and looking to pick up a quick goal on a counter attack, the Rapids have spent much of the year frustrating their opponents with their hard nosed defense, even as their inability to string together any consistency in the attack -- even worse than the Timbers -- has kept them firmly at the bottom of the West.
Against the Timbers, the Rapids will likely be rolling out a patchwork but still solid back line. Drew Moor, the centerpiece of the Colorado back line for the last several seasons is doubtful and may not have traveled to Portland. However, even in Moor's absence, the center back pairing of Sean St. Ledger and Axel Sjoberg -- a player cut from Orlando City SC for "serious breach of club policy" and a late first-round rookie draftee -- have been among the best in MLS.
It helps that Colorado's defense first approach has traditionally parked a pair of defensive midfielders in front of the back line. Usually this includes former San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Sam Cronin, but Cronin picked up a red card in his most recent match, precluding him from playing against the Timbers. In his absence, the Rapids will likely run out a tandem of former Galaxy midfielder Marcelo Sarvas and on-loan Argentine Lucas Pittinari. Sarvas, a 34 year old veteran, will bring a bit more attacking nous to the Rapids midfield over Cronin -- he scored the second goal in the Rapids' 2-0 win over Sporting Kansas City last week -- while Pittinari remains dedicatedly defensive in his play. Even the more attack minded Sarvas is basically an out and out defensive midfielder, however, and will contribute to a remarkably congested center of the pitch against the Timbers, shutting down a zone that, when they can open it up, the Timbers play their best soccer through.
Out on the flanks the defensive theme continues with Maynor Figueroa and Marlon Hairston the probable fullback choices for Colorado, bringing a very similar, athletic, high energy defensive game to Alvas Powell but significantly reined in on the attack. Ahead of them, Dominique Badjie and Luis Solignac will likely man the wide midfield spots for the second game in a row; with Colorado's propensity for forming two solid blocks of four on defense, neither player has been let free to fully commit to the attack, but both are young talents -- 23 and 24 respectively -- that can, on occasion, make something happen with the ball at their feet.
Up top in the Rapid's remarkably low scoring scheme is 32 year old Irish forward Kevin Doyle. Generally left on an island, Doyle might actually have the physical and mental tools to be a solid contributor in MLS, but the level of service that he has gotten with Colorado has not been enough for him to register much, only five goals and two assists in nineteen games this season.
Finally, the one bright point for the Rapids is their No. 8, Dillon Powers. The team's assist leader, Powers has more or less been given license to roam the field, stepping on defense, leading the break, and acting as the centerpiece for the team's nascent attack. In the Rapids' win over SKC last week, it was Powers who got the opening, and eventually game winning, goal by moving into space providing an outlet on the break as Sporting committed all of their players forward in the attack.
From top to bottom the Rapids have been a defensively strong team who have nonetheless given up a significant amount of chances as they have ceded possession to their opponents. Coming up against their packed in defense, teams have needed sharp finishing to break down the Rapids, something that the Timbers have struggled with throughout the season and something that was demonstrated by Kansas City last weekend.