Despite the parity in Major League Soccer, one team has stood above the rest for much of the league's history. The LA Galaxy have always been where the "stars align" in MLS and tomorrow the Portland Timbers will have an opportunity to show that their own star is on the rise against the five-time MLS Cup winners.
Coming off a draw against Real Salt Lake characterized by solid defending and missed chances, the Timbers will need to remain resolute at the back against one of the league's most effective attacks while fine tuning their attack to make use of the opportunities given by their core of talented players.
There will be one major change for the Timbers that we can be sure of coming into this weekend's match: Diego Chara is back. The diminutive defensive midfielder was kept out of the season opener due to a calf contusion picked up during the preseason Simple Invitational, but according to Caleb Porter he is healthy and ready to play tomorrow.
While George Fochive proved an impressive stop-gap measure in shutting down the RSL attack last weekend, Chara brings a much more diverse and refined skill-set to the Timbers. Where Fochive broke up attacks, Chara should be expected to break up attacks and launch the counter.
Moreover, the level of trust that Chara's teammates have in him, and his chemistry with the players that he has been lining up with since 2011, should not be underestimated when it comes to the fluidity of the Timbers' style of play. Where Fochive, through unfamiliarity or otherwise, played only thirty passes on Saturday, Chara tends to play closer to 40 or 50 passes in his matches.
In last Saturday's match Fochive was a respectable passer of the ball, but he tends more toward long range passes, acting as a fulcrum in the center of the pitch in the same manner of Jack Jewsbury or the Timbers' centerbacks. Chara, on the other hand, hand the same capacity for playing long, accurate passes, but also excels in close, combining for quick 1-2 passes to set players free.
The inclusion of Chara should give the Timbers a different look than the remarkably direct one that we saw last weekend, even if the Timbers again run out a lineup that seems geared toward the counter with Darlington Nagbe and Fanendo Adi in the center of the pitch, and Rodney Wallace and Dairon Asprilla on the wings. After Friday's practice, Porter told the press that he expects the Timbers to have more of the possession against LA with three men (Jewsbury, Chara, and Nagbe, most likely) in the center of the pitch to the Galaxy's two.
Chara, unlike Fochive and Jewsbury, will have free license to move up the pitch with the attack and provide some of the combination play that was absent from the Timbers' season opener, something that will hopefully free up Nagbe and company more in the final third.
Beyond Chara, it looks very unlikely that the Timbers will make any additional changes to their lineup from last weekend. While Gaston Fernandez and Maximiliano Urruti are both forever on the periphery of the starting XI, either would need to have made a very compelling argument in practice this week to displace Asprilla and push Nagbe out to the right wing.
For their part, the Galaxy have always been a team with big names surrounded by quality role players. The biggest of those in American circles, Landon Donovan, is no longer with the team, but the Galaxy still have some important players that the Timbers need to account for.
In the attack, no player in MLS is more rightly feared than Robbie Keane. The 2014 MLS Most Valuable Player scored nineteen goals and provided fourteen assists last season en route to winning his second MLS Cup with the team. Capable of breaking teams down with his movement in possession or eviscerating them on the break, a specialty of the Galaxy over the years, Keane is the player that the Timbers will need to watch.
The responsibility of taking Keane out of the game will fall on Jewsbury and the Timbers' centerbacks, Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell. Unlike Javier Morales with RSL last week, Keane will be much more difficult for Jewsbury to track as he moves and drifts all over the pitch, forcing the Timbers to either devote a man to following him or forcing them to pass him off between defenders.
Keane, of course, does not operate in a vacuum and will be assisted up top by 23-year-old Gyasi Zardes. A forward-turned-winger-turned-forward, Zardes has speed and skill to burn, so it is no surprise that he increased his goalscoring total from four goals in 2013 to sixteen in 2014 as he was given free reign of the Galaxy front line in his sophomore year.
The player to watch from the Galaxy at the back, one of the few defensive designated player in the league, is Omar Gonzalez. A big, strong, quick, and smart defender, Gonzalez has been at the heart of the Galaxy defense since his rookie year in 2009.
Last year the Galaxy defense, anchored by Gonzalez, only allowed 37 goals, the lowest total in the league. The number is no fluke as the Galaxy defense has been consistently one of the best in MLS every season, including 2011 when they only allowed 28 goals over the course of 34 games and 2010 when they only allowed 26 in 30 games.
Gonzalez and his supporting cast, which includes Robbie Rogers who has been resurgent since converting to fullback, towering Brazilian centerback Leonardo, and journeyman right back Dan Gargan, will provide a significant challenge for the Timbers tomorrow, so the home side will need to be on the mark if they want to come away with a win.
Watch it on: FOX Sports 1
Kickoff: 4:00 pm pacific at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 0-0-1
LA Galaxy: 1-0-0