Today's match against Toronto FC rounds out a three game road swing for the Portland Timbers, one that has so far seen the team stay below the red line in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
For much of the season the big questions surrounding the Portland Timbers have all revolved around scoring goals. Who will score? Why aren't the forwards scoring? Will the goal return with Diego Valeri? What about Will Johnson?
Most of the questions remain up in the air, but at least in their last match the Timbers got a goal out of designated player Fanendo Adi, his fourth of the season but first in seven games. While Maximiliano Urruti waits in the wings, it looks likely that Adi will have hung onto his starting spot for another week at least with that effort.
The players whose starting spots might be up for grabs, however, have to be the Timbers' wingers, Darlington Nagbe and Rodney Wallace. While the pair have proven to be effective in MLS in previous years, both struggled to affect the match against the Dynamo. Nagbe, who took several hard tackles from Houston's defensive midfielders, was never able to find space for the buccaneering runs with which he is capable of breaking a game open, while Wallace continued missing out on the goalscoring form that has so far eluded him in 2015.
It seems unlikely that both players would be replaced, but Dairon Asprilla has continually looked impressive in his recent substitute appearances, providing a dynamic and creative look on the right, while Ishmael Yartey's substitute appearance against the Montreal Impact two weeks ago was easily his best since joining the Timbers on loan in April.
Further back down the pitch, there is lineup uncertainty for the first time in months as Will Johnson looks close to being ready for his first game back with the first team. After three appearances with the newly minuted Portland Timbers 2, Johnson has rejoined the first team, flying with the side to Toronto.
While Caleb Porter would not tell the press if Johnson would play against Toronto early in the week, the simple fact that Johnson traveled with the team likely means that they believe he can play a full 90 minutes. Still, the Timbers are set to play three matches in eight days, returning to Portland to take on D.C. United on Wednesday then flying out again to play the Colorado Rapids the following Sunday. While a full 90 minutes seems to be within the grasp of Johnson, his ability to turn around and play multiple matches in a week is still in question. How the Timbers balance Johnson's minutes over the course of this week with those of Jack Jewsbury, the team's ever-steady utility man, remains to be seen.
The Timbers' back line, despite giving up three goals to Houston, is still the team's most stable aspect. Until last weekend the Timbers were averaging less than a goal per game conceded, having kept four clean sheets through ten matches. With some better bounces and fewer moments of misfortune, the Timbers can certainly return to that level of defensive ability.
If there is anything to worry about when it comes to the Timbers back line, it is the health of right back Alvas Powell. The Timbers' young Jamaican fullback missed practice at the start of the week while recovering from a sore hip, something that may have contributed to his sub-par match against the Dynamo. Although Porter told the press that Powell would be back for this weekend's match, youngster Taylor Peay also made the trip, giving the Timbers an extra body capable of playing right back.
The home side in this match brings up conflicted emotions for fans of the Portland Timbers. While the always hapless Reds have never managed to make the playoffs or field a truly competitive side in the Eastern Conference, they came close with last year's "Bloody Big Deal", the same side that saw Will Johnson break his leg in a clumsy slide-tackle and the Timbers subsequently disintegrate, giving up their two goal lead in the second half to return home with no points -- and no Will Johnson.
Of course, while the BBD was broken up and Gilberto and Jermaine Defoe were sent on their way, Toronto remains the team in the league most willing to pay out the nose for quality players. In addition to Michael Bradley, the midfield general of the USMNT that coaches can never agree on what to do with, the team now boasts Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, a pair of dazzling attacking threats that have to be considered among the best in MLS.
Altidore, unfortunately for Toronto, will not be playing after picking up a hamstring strain last week, leaving TFC with some uncertainty at the top of their formation. Robbie Findley, another much less successful USMNT player, is also out with an Achilles strain, and the rest of Toronto's players that could step into the position are less than convincing substitutes. Former Chivas USA man Luke Moore could step in to play alongside Giovinco in the attack or youngster Jordan Hamilton could step in and take his first chance with the Toronto first team.
While Toronto has an undoubtedly strong spine through the midfield and into the attack, particularly when Benoit Cheyrou is anchoring the midfield, it is the team's defense that has held them back this year. Allowing 14 goals through ten games, TFC has found themselves with any sort of stability along the back line, particularly with first choice centerback Steven Caldwell out injured.
Now, with Toronto likely looking to pack the center of the pitch and get width out of their forwards and fullbacks, that back line will be stretched out even more than normal and could lead to some opportunities for the Timbers to create mismatches against the TFC defenders, presuming they are able to avoid the ineffective wing play we saw last week against Houston.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 2:00 pm pacific at BMO Field in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Portland Timbers: 3-4-4, 9th place in the Western Conference
Toronto FC: 3-5-1, 6th place in the Eastern Conference