The Portland Timbers head to the Great White North tomorrow to take on the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first real rivalry match of the 2015 season. With both teams shorthanded following a series of suspensions, call-ups, and injuries, this game promises to hold plenty of surprises.
The Timbers have faced a tumultuous week as they prepare to take on the Whitecaps, first losing right back Alvas Powell to a call up to the Jamaican National Team, then losing holding midfielder and potential right back replacement Jack Jewsbury to concussion symptoms, following last Saturday's match against Sporting Kansas City. As the week progressed, however, news broke that Powell would be returning to the team for Saturday's match, giving the Timbers a temporary reprieve from their woes at right back.
Of course, despite avoiding the loss of one player that has been key to the Timbers' lineup so far this year, Portland are still missing a number of players due to injury including team captain Will Johnson, his replacement Ben Zemanski, attacking substitute Michael Nanchoff, and the key to the Timbers' prodigious attack in 2013 and 2014, Diego Valeri.
In place of Jewsbury the Timbers will almost certainly go with second year man George Fochive, his second appearance for the Timbers and his second start of the young 2015 season. An athletic, defensive minded player, Fochive will likely line up as a shield in front of the defense in much the same way that Jewsbury, or Zemanski, have tended to.
With the team barely treading water in the personnel department, the Timbers look likely to run out a similar lineup to the one that they have used in the first three games of the season, putting an attacking group of Fanendo Adi, Rodney Wallace, and Dairon Asprilla around Darlington Nagbe at the top of the pitch, while keeping a solid defensive core at the back to frustrate their opponents.
There are some possible changes that the Timbers could make in tomorrow's match, however, that have to potential to crack open a Whitecaps side that has been difficult to break down in 2015.
The Timbers started moving back toward the possession style of play that the team has been known for in their last match, pushing Diego Chara forward into the attack and using him to win and hold possession further up the pitch than in their first two efforts of the season against the admittedly tricky Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy.
With the team striving to find the correct balance between the direct attacking play that netted them their only two goals of the season, both against LA, and the possession play that served them well in years past, the next move for the Timbers is to unleash their fullbacks, getting Powell and Jorge Villafana involved in the attack. The pair are both excellent at providing width with their opponents pinned back, giving the Timbers wingers, Wallace and Asprilla, the opportunity to get in and around the box.
Wallace is a known quantity in the attack, scoring twelve goals in 44 games over the last two seasons. Asprilla, meanwhile, is yet to prove himself with the Timbers, but in his few opportunities getting into the box so far this year he has looked dangerous, most notably in the season opener, when an excellent run into the box opened him up for a snap header that bounced just wide of the post.
Unlike the Timbers, for the Whitecaps there has been no return for their players, instead losing a significant chunk of their lineup to international call ups and the unsurprising decisions of the MLS Disciplinary Committee. First the 'Caps lost Russell Teibert, Darren Mattocks, Sam Adekugbe, and Christian Dean to call ups, then had Kekutah Manneh and Diego Rodriguez each suspended by the DC. Adekugbe was withdrawn from national team duty with Canada due to a rib injury suffered when he collided with former Timber Donovan Ricketts in the Whitecaps match against Orlando City FC last weekend.
All of the above, with exception of Dean, have played for the Whitecaps this season. Teibert and Adekugbe have each made a pair of starts, while Manneh has played all three matches for the Whitecaps on the left wing.
In place of Manneh, the Whitecaps will likely bring in either Kianz Froese or former Timbers U-23s player Erik Hurtado. For Timbers fans, Hurtado is much more well known and would provide a strong, speedy presence on the left to take on the recently returned Alvas Powell.
In the center of the pitch, the Whitecaps should not miss Teibert too much with the trio of Pedro Morales, Gershon Koffie, and Matias Laba holding down the fort. As always, Morales is the man to watch for the Whitecaps. One season removed from his ten goal and twelve assist year in 2014, Morales has notched one assist so far for the Whitecaps in 2015 as teams attempt to follow the Timbers' blueprint from last year and man-mark him into oblivion. In 2014 Diego Chara essentially made Morales a non-factor in the Timbers' two late season matches against Vancouver, a pair of 3-0 Timbers wins, and this week he will likely be given the same duty on defense.
Up top, the Whitecaps have young designated player Octavio Rivero. Quickly adjusting to MLS, Rivero has already scored three goals for the 'Caps, two of which were game-winners. A quick, strong player with the ability to score with the ball on the ground or in the air, Rivero will give the Timbers' defense all they can handle.
Where the Whitecaps will be vulnerable is along the defensive line. Without Adekugbe and Rodriguez, the Whitecaps will be missing half of the defensive line that shut out Kaka and Orlando City FC last weekend. Of the players likely to step in for Vancouver, none will be more well known than Pa Modou Kah, the Timbers' former centerback from the 2013 and 2014 seasons. After a literally rough outing against the Timbers in the preseason and a figuratively rough outing against Toronto FC in the Whitecaps' season opening 3-1 loss, Kah lost his place for the Whitecaps' third match.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 5:00 pm pacific at BC Place in Vancouver, BC, Canada
Portland Timbers: 0-0-3, 7th place in the Western Conference
Vancouver Whitecaps: 2-1-0, 3rd place in the Western Conference