Coming off a potentially season defining win against the LA Galaxy last weekend, the Portland Timbers are set to host the Colorado Rapids this afternoon in a match that could see the team jump to the second place spot in the Western Conference or fall out of the playoffs entirely. With the season hanging in the balance, the Timbers must navigate the packed in West and show that last Sunday's result was more than just a flash in the pan.
The visiting Rapids come into this match as underdogs, having conclusively sewn up the last place spot in the West thanks mostly to their anemic attack that only scored 32 goals in 33 matches this year. Still, the Rapids should not be underestimated; just four days removed from a 2-0 win over playoff hopefuls Sporting Kansas City, Colorado have some fight in them yet and, as is the nature of MLS, every player who hits the field this afternoon will be playing for his job in the 2016 season.
It will be up to the Timbers to break down a probably packed in Rapids team; one with a defense that has only allowed 39 goals on the season, 6th best in the league. The Timbers will need to do this, however, without The Maestro, Diego Valeri. Suspended for yellow card accumulation following his booking against the Galaxy for time wasting, Valeri will leave a sizable hole in the Timbers' midfield in his absence, particularly with Will Johnson and Jack Jewsbury both still questionable for this match, having only recently returned to training following their respective layoffs from training due to injury.
Who will replace Valeri and how Caleb Porter will line up the Timbers given their absences seem to be the defining questions of the weekend, questions to which there are plenty of answers.
Michael Nanchoff, a creative player with a smooth touch on the dribble and a wicked shot from distance that he is eager to unleash, seems to be the popular pick: a player who can step immediately into Valeri's shoes as the team's main playmaker in the attack and allow the Timbers to continue in the single-pivot midfield that they had such success in against the Galaxy.
Of course, the act of putting in Nanchoff brings questions of its own and none is bigger than how he will contribute in the defensive end. The Timbers' single pivot is predicated on the advanced central midfielders coming back to help. Darlington Nagbe has been the most visible contributor to the cause, playing almost alongside Diego Chara at times, but the contributions of Valeri to the defensive cause against LA and Real Salt Lake should not be underestimated, even in terms of the space he occupied while tracking back. Nanchoff, who has only made a handful of appearances for the Timbers since joining the team, has been a regular contributor in training and has impressed enough to fight his way into the 18 recently.
The other likely option for the Timbers is George Fochive. Fochive is a somewhat trickier proposal when it comes to determining just what the Timbers would look like with him on the field. The natural inclination is to say that the Timbers may go back to the double-pivot midfield, with Fochive and Chara playing in the see-saw manner that gave Chara such success alongside Will Johnson in 2013 and 2014, but although we have seen this set up from the Timbers before, there is no guarantee that the team will abandon their recent conversion to the single-pivot.
If the Timbers do go back to the double-pivot Darlington Nagbe will be forced to play further up the field, either in an approximation of the No. 10 spot or out on the wing in something more resembling a 4-4-2 with Lucas Melano alongside Fanendo Adi at the top of the formation. Nagbe has done well in the No. 10 spot, providing a bright spot for the Timbers early in the season, but the team as a whole was struggling at the time and it is hard to say if Nagbe's return to that spot could lead to a regression toward the Timbers' early season form. Just as importantly, while reining in the aggressive defensive tendencies of just Chara has proven possible in recent matches, when Chara and Fochive have lined up together they have been less than compatible, with the Timbers' 2-0 loss to Orlando City SC coming most vividly to mind.
The single-pivot setup, however, would give the Timbers a somewhat untested lineup, but should give the team a strong base through which to possess the ball and probe for opportunities to break down the Rapids' defense. If the Timbers do follow this route, either Chara or Fochive could well line up as the "single" in the single-pivot and the other could line up alongside Nagbe in a more advanced box to box role. It is easy to pigeonhole Fochive as a defensive midfielder, but the fact remains that he was a box to box player in college and, as we have seen with the Sacramento Republic last year and T2 this year, he is certainly capable of holding possession or getting forward and mixing it up in the attack.
Which set up the Timbers go with could well rest on the flip of a coin for all that we can tell, but how it plays out will write the story of this season.
Beyond the hole in the center of the pitch, the Timbers are back and healthy throughout the attack and defense. Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers will need to be on their game along the back line as most of the Rapid's attacks will likely come as they try to his the Timbers on the break. At fullback, Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana will have plenty of opportunities to influence this match as they should be able to get forward and provide regular service for the Timbers with the Rapids allowing crosses with Sean St. Ledger and the 6'7" Axel Sjoberg in the center of the defense.
Up top, Fanendo Adi will have his hands full tangling with those same defenders. However, neither is among the most mobile centerbacks in the league and if Adi can get on the ball and play some of the simple, laid off passes that he has excelled at in recent weeks then the Timbers might just be able to carve open the Rapids through the center of the pitch, a rarity indeed. At the same time, Lucas Melano may struggle in this match as space in which to make use of his blazing speed will be difficult to come across. Instead, Melano will need to show that his close-in assist on Adi's first goal against the Galaxy was not a fluke and that he can combine in tight spaces to unlock a packed in defense. Having been accused of failing to combine with his teammates so far this season, Melano could make his mark in this match if he can prove his doubters wrong.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 4:00 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 14-11-8, 4th in the Western Conference, LWLWW
Colorado Rapids: 9-14-10, 10th in the Western Conference, LLLLW