The Portland Timbers have a second chance against Cascadian opposition in tomorrow night's match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. One week after dropping a harsh 1-0 result to the Seattle Sounders, the Timbers return home and look to put their season back on track to make the playoffs for the just the second time in the team's history since joining Major League Soccer.
Following a defensive effort against the Seattle Sounders that saw the Timbers play deep in their own half, inviting their opponents forward and opening space for their attack to work, particularly in the second half, the Timbers will likely change things up against a decidedly different Whitecaps side. Where last Sunday saw the Timbers looking to hold the ball until an opportunity to get forward presented itself, this week should see the Timbers looking for quick transitions into the attack, pushing forward and putting pressure on the defense high up the pitch.
Whereas last match saw the Timbers attacking up the middle through Darlington Nagbe and Maximiliano Urruti, this match will likely see a much greater emphasis on the play of the Timbers' wings, with Ishmael Yartey and Dairon Asprilla looking to cut inside and overload the center. This will also change the responsibilities of the outside backs, giving them more space to get up the field and provide width to the attack, rather than the defense first mindset that we saw against the Sounders.
While the approach may differ, it seems unlikely that the personnel will see much in terms of changes to the starting XI.
At the top of the Timbers' formation, however, the Maximiliano Urruti - Fanendo Adi debate continues. While Adi may have been benched against Seattle in favor of a forward more prone to making runs and looking to get behind the defense, this game could call for a bigger, more physical forward capable of good hold up play. Particularly if the Timbers continue with the Yartey-Asprilla pairing out wide, Adi's ability to hold the ball up for his fellow attackers and to push the line to create space could be very impactful.
Where the forward spot could see a tactical swap, out on the wing the Timbers might need to make a change for health reasons. Dairon Asprilla, who has started the Timbers' last two matches, is coming off surgery performed on Monday to repair a fractured bone in his wrist. Since then, Asprilla has yet to get back into full first team training, prompting Caleb Porter to call him a "game-time decision" at training on Friday.
At the same time, the Timbers' stalwart left wing, Rodney Wallace, made his return to practice this week after missing the last two weeks with an MCL strain. Wallace has yet to recapture his goalscoring magic of the last two years, scoring 12 goals in 44 games over the course of 2013 and 2014, but has still been a steady part of Porter's side this season. If Asprilla is not yet ready to play then Wallace seems likely to get the call or could even step in for the Timbers' newest arrival, Yartey.
With some uncertainty up front, the Timbers remain solid at the back. Despite the shaky play on the Sounders' goal last weekend, the Timbers defense remains the most steady part of the team, keeping the Timbers in games, even if not providing the shutouts that we want to see. The back six of Diego Chara, Jack Jewsbury, Jorge Villafana, Liam Ridgewell, Nat Borchers, and Alvas Powell will remain unchanged for this one as they look to shut down prolific Whitecaps forward Octavio Rivero, the current MLS leader in goals scored with five (tied with the Columbus Crew's Kei Kamara), and his supporting cast.
No matter who ends up on the field, of course, the most excitement is going to be reserved for who might come off the bench. Will Johnson could make his return to the 18 for the this one, but it seems likely that the Timbers will play it safe there and wait for him to be 90 minutes fit before including him. Diego Valeri, however, will be in the 18 and it is time for The Maestro to make his return.
After missing the last six months as he recovers from a torn ACL, Valeri seems to be practically chomping at the bit to get back on the field and the Timbers too are chomping at the bit to play him. So far the Timbers have been held back by an appropriate level of caution, but even the recently (and eagerly) earned reputation of the Whitecaps as a team full of thugs should not stop the Timbers from getting their star back on the field in this one.
There is one even more exciting possibility, though: Valeri could get the start. Although nothing but hearsay, the rumor of a rumor that Valeri could play as many as 60 minutes tomorrow was lent some sort of credence at training today when Porter mentioned, unbidden, that he would not say if Valeri would be starting or coming off the bench.
The return of Valeri will start to provide answers to some of the questions that Timbers fans have been asking all season. How will Valeri and Nagbe play together? How much better are the Timbers with Valeri? Can the Timbers turn the season around following a competitive-but-disappointing start?
After rattling off four wins in weeks two through five, including a 2-1 win over the Timbers, the Whitecaps find themselves in a decidedly mediocre run of form. After breaking their four game winning streak, Vancouver have followed that up with a tie against the Crew, a loss the San Jose Earthquakes, a win over suddenly toothless Real Salt Lake, and most recently a loss at home to high-flying D.C. United.
While the step back from the Whitecaps' rampant start to the season is certainly encouraging for Timbers fans, the Cap's have kept it close, even in their losses so far this season, only going down by a single goal in their two most recent losing efforts.
A large part of Vancouver's success at keeping things close has come from their dedication to a compact defense and counter attacking mentality (as mentioned by Jack Jewsbury on Thursday). Scrupulously sticking with a 4-2-3-1 and keeping their prolific playmaker of the last two years, Pedro Morales, in a more box to box role, the Whitecaps have sought to balance their defensive core with a group of young, quick attacking players that are capable of quickly breaking down the pitch and opening up opponents on the counter.
Pulling Morales has been a large part of this strategy. The Whitecaps' Argentine No. 77 has no problem contributing to the defense, adding to the Whitecaps traditionally stout central midfield, but his real value comes from his pinpoint accurate long passing and his ability to find speedsters like Rivero, Kekuta Manneh, and Darren Mattocks on the break.
That midfield core will take a hit this match, however, as they will be with designated player Matias Laba following his suspensions for a pair of yellow cards against D.C. last weekend. Laba, although he has been taken apart by Darlington Nagbe in previous matches between the two teams, has been one of the league's best at the holding midfield spot since joining the Whitecaps and his partnership with Russell Teibert has been an impressive one.
In Laba's place will likely be a Whitecaps old-boy, Gershon Koffie. Although only 23, Koffie joined the Whitecaps in 2011 and has featured regularly for them since, appearing 111 times for the northerners to date. Although he has calmed somewhat in recent season, Koffie has a reputation for giving up fouls and, more recently, for picking up yellows, something Timbers will certainly look to exploit as they go at the Vancouver defense.
The Whitecaps' defense also finds itself in a state of flux after a run of inconsistent performances from former Timber Pa Modou Kah. Despite making the MLS Team of the Week two weeks ago, Kah's performance against D.C. last Saturday had Whitecaps fans hoping for the return of Uruguayan centerback Diego Rodriguez. Without Laba on hand to fill in the gaps, Kah's occasional mystery decisions on marking, passing, and play in general were major factors in the Whitecaps succumbing to D.C.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 7:30 pm pacific at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 2-3-3, 8th place in the Western Conference
Vancouver Whitecaps: 5-3-1, 1st place in the Western Conference