The Portland Timbers return home today for the first time in the better part of the month and will be greeted at Providence Park by 21,000 fans and D.C. United, the team current in the lead of the race for the Supporters' Shield. On a two game losing streak that seems so much longer, the Timbers are simply looking to crawl their way out of a tie with the Colorado Rapids for the distinction of the worst in the West.
Only four weeks after his return from ACL surgery, the Portland Timbers have lost Diego Valeri again, this time to a strained ankle suffered on the grass in Ontario as the team fell 1-0 to Toronto FC. Without Valeri the Timbers find themselves once again needing to shuffle up a lineup that has struggled to find the back of the net for most of the season.
The Timbers could go with one of their previously attempted lineups as they look to fill in the void left without Valeri, either bringing Darlington Nagbe central and playing Dairon Asprilla out wide on the right or bringing in Gaston Fernandez as a false-ten/second striker behind the attack. Both formations are familiar and neither has worked particularly well for the Timbers this year.
If the Timbers want to mix things up and get experimental, which seems improbable given the short turnaround to implement any changes for the side, the potential return of Will Johnson to the lineup opens some doors. Johnson, Porter told the press on Tuesday, will only play one of the Timbers two games this week, but this certainly seems like the more likely of the two, getting Jack Jewsbury some rest so soon after a difficult game in Toronto and a making his return in front of a home crowd who have missed his spark out on the pitch.
With Johnson on the pitch, the Timbers could return to their "double pivot" system, allowing Johnson and Diego Chara to get forward in equal measure, rather than the more stay-at-home play that we have seen from the Timbers' holding midfielders this season. Or the Timbers could abandon the two holding midfielder system altogether, pushing Johnson further up the pitch into a true central midfield role while deploying Chara as an active but still anchored defensive midfielder, using Johnson in a similar way to Toronto's use of Michael Bradley.
Perhaps the most interesting twist this change could allow would be the use of a 4-1-3-2 by the Timbers, playing Fernandez and Maximiliano Urruti alongside each other on the front line, or even giving Asprilla or Nagbe a shot at one of the forward positions. Adi, despite being the Timbers' most recent goalscorer, went the full 90 minutes against Toronto and did not look great in doing so, so he will likely be given a chance to rest ahead of this weekend's match against Colorado.
If the Timbers were to push Johnson further up the field, it would take some major adjustments from the rest of the attacking group, calling on the wide players in particular to serve in a much more box-to-box role, rather than simply dividing the team into the "front four" in the attack and the "block of six" on defense.
Despite the flux occurring further up the pitch, the Timbers defense remains the same as it ever was. Following a buccaneering attacking performance from Jorge Villafana for much of the match against Toronto and another 90' of opposing teams focusing their attack on Alvas Powell as he bent but did not break (with significant help from Chara), the Timbers' back line can take some solace in the fact that it took a likely Goal of the Week winner to unlock them and that Adam Kwarasey seems to be at his best right now, making several fantastic saves to keep the Timbers in the match over the weekend.
United is a deep team, so when we find out that players like Chris Rolfe, Davy Arnoux, and others have been left in D.C. rather than flying across the country on short rest, it is only a little bit of a comfort. United have had a steady rotation in their starting XI this season, but unlike the Timbers it has been at the decision of Ben Olsen, rather than forced by injury or lack of performance.
One place that D.C. have not been making regular changes is in the heart of their defense. Perry Kitchen and Bobby Boswell form the rigid spine of this United side, each playing every minute for D.C. so far this season, and anchoring a defense that has only allowed ten goals in twelve games, giving them the second best goals against average in the league (following Colorado who have allowed a stupidly low nine goals in eleven games). While the players surrounding them have been rotated in and out, Kitchen and Boswell, with Bill Hamid in goal behind them, are the foundation on which this D.C. side is built.
While the defense has allowed D.C. to climb their way to the top of the league, their attack has not made things easy. Currently riddled with injuries, the United corps of forwards and attacking midfielders is a talented one with a large group of young-ish players just coming into the prime of their careers. Unfortunately for D.C., players who were supposed to play major roles this season like Nick DeLeon, Luis Silva, and now-designated-player Fabian Espindola have all come up injured. Even former-Sounder Eddie Johnson, who alternately thrilled and frustraited in D.C., was forced into retirement by a heart condition at the start of the season.
United have still managed to pull out the wins thanks to goals coming from all across the side, but the anemic nature of their offense seems to be catching up to them as they failed to score two weeks ago in a 1-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union, easily one of the league's worst teams, and then could not capitalize on being two men up for over 30 minutes against the New England Revolution over the weekend.
Watch it on: Root Sports
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. pacific at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 3-5-4, 9th place in the Western Conference
D.C. United: 6-2-4, 1st place in the Eastern Conference