The Portland Timbers take on recent returnees to the Western Conference, the Houston Dynamo, tonight in a match up between two teams at the bottom of the table with hopes of moving up. The Western Conference is still packed tight and both the Timbers and Dynamo are within a win of an early grasp on a playoff berth.
Diego Valeri made his successful return to the Timbers' starting lineup in last week's 2-1 win over the Montreal Impact, scoring the game winning goal in just his second appearance of the season. The Timbers' attacking centerpiece made an immediate and obvious impact on the game, taking the pressure off of Darlington Nagbe and bringing Rodney Wallace into the match.
Still, it took a bit of magic from Valeri to help the Timbers walk away from all three points as he hit a curling ball on frame for the go-ahead goal. That sort of contribution, as common as it has been in the last two seasons, can't be counted on game in and game out, and the Timbers will need some of their other players to step up their production now that Valeri is back to take some of the pressure off of them.
Wallace, for his part, was effective against Montreal, getting the assist on Valeri's goal, but the Timbers' winger has now gone ten appearances for the Timbers without scoring, his longest goalless drought since John Spencer was the Timbers' head coach still back in 2012. Bringing home twelve goals in 44 games between 2013 and 2014, Wallace has been a dependable goalscorer for the Timbers in the past and will need to step up now if the Timbers are going to have a real chance of making the playoffs, particularly if they want to host a playoff match.
Nagbe's scoring troubles are somewhat more well documented, with his lone league goal last season coming in the ultimately futile final match of the season against FC Dallas. The hope that Nagbe will remember how nice it is to put the ball in the back of the net may be in vain, but the presence of Valeri will help open up space for Nagbe as well, potentially allowing him to make one of his slashing runs forward with the ball before dumping it off to one of the team's less goal-shy players around the opposition box.
Of course, finding less goal-shy players has been a difficult task for the Timbers recently, particularly when looking at the team's forwards. Fanendo Adi and Maximiliano Urruti went another match without scoring against Montreal, despite a glut of chances, particularly for Urruti once he was inserted late in the game and was able to get in behind the Impact back line seemingly at will. The play of both forwards seems to have improved, but the goals are still not coming.
Thankfully, the goals are still not coming against the Timbers as well. The Timbers' backline may have given one up to Montreal in a momentary breakdown following the team's second goal, but the remainder of the match saw the entire defensive unit put in strong performances.
Alvas Powell has continued to be the toast of the town for his defensive maturation, but the other five members of the back line were similarly dominant against the Impact. If the Timbers' defensive block can continue this level of performance then the team should find itself in good stead going forward.
The Dynamo are coming off a road win of their own, having beaten Toronto FC, the Timbers' opponents next weekend, 2-1 in the season's first match at BMO Field. The match saw the Dynamo open the scoring off a penalty kick then get the game winner on a quick break down the pitch, finished off by forward Will Bruin for his first goal of the season.
A steady goalscorer for the Dynamo over the last four years since being selected at No. 11 in the 2011 MLS Superdraft, Bruin is a player that the Timbers' defense will need to mark vigilantly as he starts to round into form. For the majority of the 2015 season, however, it is the Dynamo's other forward that teams have needed to pay more attention to. Giles Barnes, after finishing 2014 with 11 goals in 34 games, has already racked up five goals in ten appearances and even got the assist on Bruin's goal against TFC.
Barnes and Bruin form one of the more traditional striker pairings in Major League Soccer, with Bruin as the target man and Barnes running freely off of him as a second striker.
Although Barnes has free reign to drop back into the midfield and pick up the ball, something he often does, the primary playmaking for the Dynamo still happens on the wings, with Brad Davis continuing his role as the orchestrator of the attack. Although he missed out on last weekend's win over Toronto with a hamstring strain, Davis is the Dynamo's leading provider of assists, setting up three goals for the Dynamo this season. Still listed as probable on the MLS Injury Report, Davis seems like a good bet to make his return against the Timbers, playing in his usual post out on the left win.
Another player that the Timbers will have to watch out for is energetic holding midfielder Ricardo Clark. A box to box player with the ability to chip in a goal or just create havoc in the box, Clark is player that just makes things difficult for his opponents and will certainly cause issues both for the Timbers' attack and defense. Along with Honduran national-teamer Luis Garrido, Clark is part of a midfield setup that focuses on winning the ball quickly and springing immediate attacks up the field.
Watch it on: KPTV
Kickoff: 5:30 pm pacific at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, TX
Portland Timbers: 3-3-4, 8th place in the Western Conference
Houston Dynamo: 3-4-4, 9th place in the Western Conference