The Portland Timbers take on the Vancouver Whitecaps tonight in a match with huge implications in both the league and Cascadia Cup standings. A win here would move the Timbers above the 'Caps in the standings and would keep the Timbers relevant in the Cascadia Cup standings and within striking distance of the Seattle Sounders.
The Portland Timbers come into this match having just dropped a tough result on the road to the Philadelphia Union and will be looking to get things back on track with their sixth home win in a row. After an injury stricken start to the year, the Timbers seemed to find their form in recent weeks as the majority of the team got healthy for a stretch of seven games in twenty seven days that moved the team from the bottom of the Western Conference to contention for the top.
Now, however, the Timbers find themselves once again beset by injuries. While the severity of the assorted knocks that kept Adam Kwarasey, Norberto Paparatto, Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, and Maximiliano Urruti out of the eighteen against the Union is unknown, it is imperative that the Timbers recover quickly and keep their home form going. While the team can survive a slow start, a second slow period would certainly move the Timbers from a team that looks like a lock for a playoff spot to one that could struggle to get in at all, much like we saw in 2015.
While it is tough to say who the Timbers will line up in tonight's match, it seems likely that they will be mostly recovered and ready to play. There may be one or two players held out of the XI, or even the 18, with injuries, but the Timbers should still be able to put together a much more cohesive lineup than the one that we saw last weekend.
Two players all but guaranteed to make their return are the Timbers' first choice fullbacks: Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana. Villafana, who is third in minutes played among the Timbers' field players in 2015, was rested for the match, while Powell returns to the Timbers after leaving the Jamaican National Team Gold Cup camp. Before Saturday, Powell had played all but five minutes for the Timbers in 2015.
In the center of the defense, the return of Kwarasey in goal seems probable with Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers the likely centerback pairing. With the Whitecaps likely to sit back and hit the Timbers on the counter, precise passing, good decisions, and an ability to step in and pick off passes through the back line will be key. Despite the Timbers' stellar record of late with Paparatto in the lineup, Borchers provides those attributes to the side in a way that the big man does not.
Equally key to shutting down the attack of Vancouver will be mobility, aggression, and the ability to recover in the midfield. With Will Johnson certain to play, there is only one player who can partner up with the captain and prove all of that: Chara. While his fitness might be in doubt, Chara can shut down the midfield like no other and will be invaluable to the Timbers in this match. If he cannot go, the Timbers will find themselves in a sticky situation, being forced to either play Jack Jewsbury alongside Johnson and risk a lackluster performance from the pair like they saw in Philadelphia or play George Fochive and worry about the youngster making the poor decisions that will let Vancouver break down the pitch.
In the front four, the Timbers will be looking for a group that will be able to pin back the Whitecaps and hold onto the ball for long stretches, looking for an opening in a Vancouver defense that will be missing several key players. Nagbe should be back for this one, so expect him to pair with Valeri in the attack. This might be a good opportunity to deploy the quick passing and interplay that Gaston Fernandez brings to the side.
The Whitecaps have built their strong season so far around good defensive performances from the spine of the team. Starting with David Ousted in goal and looking forward to Kendall Waston at centerback and Matias Laba in the midfield, the Whitecaps have been a very difficult team to break down. Bringing a counter attacking mentality to games, the Whitecaps will likely look to pack it in this evening and go for the quick counter attacks at which they have been reasonably successful so far this year.
In this game, however, that spine is suspect. Waston, one of the best and most consistent centerbacks in the league, has been called up to his national team for the Gold Cup, while Laba, for whatever reasons, has never looked particularly good against the Timbers, being absolutely disassembled by Nagbe on several occasions. If there is one bright spot in the Whitecaps lineup that is set to face the Timbers, it is Ousted, who has already shut the Timbers out once this year.
The absence of Waston is compounded by injurie an injury to Pa Modou Kah and the general lack of form of Diego Rodriguez, who has missed much of the year due to injuries of his own. In this one Rodriguez will likely be paired up with youngster Tim Parker. The Whitecaps 2015 first round draft pick, Parker is well thought of but inexperienced, having been pressed into five appearances for the Whitecaps this year.
In the attack, the Whitecaps are without the speed of Darron Mattacks, but still have plenty to burn with Kekuta Manneh and Octavio Rivero in the lineup. Manneh in particular is worth watching, having scored in three of the last five Whitecaps matches. Rivero has been less in-form after his hot start to the season, only scoring once in the last nine games. Still, the young striker remains dangerous and the Timbers will have to be wary both of his ability to break out and his aerial abilities on set pieces.
The Whitecaps attack will be without once main component for this evening, however, with designated player Pedro Morales unlikely to play with an ongoing calf issue. The player who links up the attack and the defense for the Whitecaps, Morales has the ability to play incisive passes out of the back like none other on the Vancouver roster, and missing him makes them less dangerous from top to bottom.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 9-7-4, 5th pace in the Western Conference
Vancouver Whitecaps: 10-8-2, 3rd place in the Western Conference