The 2015 MLS playoffs are here and tonight it is time for the Portland Timbers to make their second post season appearance since joining the league in 2015. The Timbers will face off against the one side that has consistently frustrated them this year, Sporting Kansas City.
Tonight has every indication that it will be a close match between two sides that finished only two points apart on the table. Moreover, in three matches between the two sides this year, there has been only one goal scored, an 83rd minute winner from SKC's Krisztian Nemeth in the most recent meeting on October 3rd.
Much of how this game plays out will come down to how Sporting takes the field. The visitors come into this one playing their fourth game in two weeks, including a hard fought 2-1 win over the LA Galaxy to close out the season, and the fear for the Timbers has to be that SKC will look to pack it in and play a heavily bunker game while looking to hit the Timbers on the break. It is a tactic that SKC have reverted to when in a hard stretch of games and one that got them four points out of the team's last two matches against the Timbers as well as a penalty kick victory in this year's U.S. Open Cup Final.
However, there is still a very real possibility that SKC will come to play an actual game of soccer; despite their showings against Portland, SKC is solidly in the middle of the pack in scoring, having notched 48 goals over the course of the 2015 season. Of those 48 goals, Benny Feilhaber has been involved in over half of them. This year Feilhaber has scored 10 goals and provided 15 assists, including the assist on Kansas City's game winner over the Galaxy on Sunday when he was inserted into the game for only the second half.
Whether Sporting look for a game that is closed down or opened up, dealing with Feilhaber will be key to keeping them off the board. There are other players in the side who can make things happen -- Nemeth, Dom Dwyer, and Graham Zusi all immediately spring to mind -- but Feilhaber is a player who makes things happen consistently.
Of course, there another part to this equation: the Timbers. In their last two matches against SKC the Timbers racked up 35 shots, fourteen of them on goal, but could not put a single one past SKC keeper Tim Melia. Finishing had been a problem for the Timbers all year, but in these two matches it hit its peak.
Now, however, the Timbers are getting the ball in the back of the net, scoring ten goals -- a quarter of the team's output for the season -- in the team's last three games. The shots have not been markedly better and there certainly have not been more of them, but the chances that they are coming from have improved just enough to make a difference and that is something that, if the Timbers can carry it forward into tonight's match, should prove to be a difference maker.
Just how the Timbers go about doing that, however, very much rests on the shape of their midfield. With the return of Diego Valeri from suspension, the Timbers will need to move somebody around in order to get the Maestro back on the pitch.
With the front four of Darlington Nagbe, Rodney Wallace, Lucas Melano, and Fanendo Adi emphatically producing results, particularly in the last two games, it would be hard to displace any of those players. Luckily, the Timbers already hit on the answer to this question in their recent matches against Real Salt Lake and the LA Galaxy: move back to a single pivot midfield.
Whether this is really the answer or not depends on one major question: is Diego Chara healthy?
The cornerstone of the Timbers' midfield since joining the team in 2011, Chara's ability to win the ball, break up plays, and cover ground in front of the back line is vital to playing the single pivot. But with the Colombian coming out of the Timbers' season finale just 50 minutes in with an unspecified leg injury, his ability to play in this one is significantly in doubt.
Without Chara, the Timbers have little choice but to bring in the pairing of Jack Jewsbury and George Fochive, a duo who have played well together during their appearances in this season of uncertainty in the center of the pitch. Either could play alone in front of the back line, but with no experience doing so and only three days turnaround between the last game and this one that seems like a little too bold of a choice for the Timbers to consider.
Watch it on: Unimas, ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 7:00 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 15-11-8, Finished in 3rd place in the Western Conference
Sporting Kansas City: 14-11-9, Finished in 6th place in the Western Conference