The Portland Timbers need to pick up points away from home if they want to do more than just tread water in MLS's Western Conference and this weekend that means going to Frisco, Texas to take on the league leaders: FC Dallas.
Two weeks ago the Portland Timbers were the hottest team in MLS, riding the momentum of six wins in seven games. Now, after a bad road loss to the Philadelphia Union and a hard fought tie at home against the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Timbers find themselves coming up against MLS's new hottest side: FC Dallas and their four game winning streak.
For the Timbers, the sudden and seemingly complete loss of momentum has seemingly stemmed from the wide-ranging bout of injuries that have hampered players in the starting XI as the Timbers came out of their most densely packed part of the season. While the Timbers have been successful at rotating their attacking players in and out of the lineup, forced changes to the back line and central midfield in recent weeks have seemed to throw the Timbers off kilter, eroding the base on which the success that the team has had this year has been built on.
To get back to the strong defensive performances that have made this team a surprising contender in 2015, the Timbers are going to need several things.
First, Caleb Porter is going to need to get his holding midfielders right. With Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara the likely pairing in this one while Will Johnson is suspended following a spat with the referee after the Timbers' tie against Vancouver, Porter will need to make sure that he gets the balance between the two players' responsibilities right.
With Jewsbury on the pitch, the Timbers will have a hard working and well positioned, but generally less mobile, partner for Chara and it seems likely that he will tend to sit back in front of the defense more while Chara presses higher up the pitch, a now common dynamic with Chara and anyone he is paired with. What the Timbers will need to look out for, however, is the tendency of both players in this pairing to get sucked to the ball when defending deep in the Timbers' half. That tendency has bit the Timbers previously and will need to be watched out for in this one.
Second, the Timbers are going to need to recommit to their defense. While the consistency of the back line has been huge for the team this year, the Timbers' commitment to playing defense from the top down has been a huge part of the team's success. At times, however, the Timbers' attacking players, namely Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri, have been less than committed, leaving some big holes in the Timbers' midfield for teams to exploit. In a match against a team that thrives in the one on one situations that those holes allow for, whole-team defense will be key here.
Finally, the Timbers need to reestablish the understanding and balance of their back line, something that has been lacking in recent matches as the Timbers have seems to be caught with one or both of their fullbacks forward without the rest of the defense properly compensating. Against the Whitecaps this was a particular issue, as Kekuta Manneh got in behind the defense repeatedly, with only some heroics from Nat Borchers and Adam Kwarasey thwarting him.
Defense will be key in this match, but, as always, the Timbers will be looking to win this one and the best way for them to do so, Caleb Porter told the press on Wednesday, is to lock down the defense and look to pick their moments to go forward. The Timbers will be looking to hit Dallas on the counter.
Of course, perhaps the Timbers' best counter-attacking effort of the year so far came in the side's previous match against Dallas as the Timbers scored three times on the break as Darlinton Nagbe put in a great performance from the No. 10 spot, setting up all three goals even if he did only end up with one assist.
At the time of that last match, the Timbers were winless in the league and Dallas were, as they are now, the hottest team in the league. The Timbers will be looking to carve them up once again and they just might have a new weapon in their arsenal by the time that tonight's match rolls around.
If the Timbers' newly acquired winger/forward Lucas Melano's international transfer certificate has come through then the Timbers will have a fast scoring threat ready to break down the pitch and get in behind the Dallas defense, creating scoring chances of his own and making space for the rest of the team to use as they look to break out of the high pressure that Dallas will certainly bring in a match like this.
Of course, it is still unknown whether Melano will be available for the match tonight, but if he is expect the new boy to play an important role, either as a substitute or maybe even as a part of the XI.
After a long, mid-season road trip, Dallas have returned to the Lone Star State for three of their last four games and they have done well in the sweltering heat at home. With four wins in a row in which they have only allowed one goal, Dallas are firing on all cylinders here.
Outscoring their opponents 9-1 in this run of form, Dallas are getting goals from all across the pitch, but it is two now familiar names that appear to be at the heart of it all: Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz. A pair of dynamic playmakers, Diaz and Castillo are each individually dangerous, but when feeding off each other they can shred opposition defenses.
For his part, Castillo is everything that the Timbers are hoping to get out of Melano: a lightning quick winger with the ability to take players on, stretch defenses, and score goals. Castillo commands respect from opposing defenses and downright requires multiple players to step to him when he has the ball; taking on Castillo one on one as a defender is a bad plan.
Diaz, meanwhile, thrives in the spaces that defenders open up while looking to shut down Castillo. A stereotypically skillful Argentine central attacking midfielder, Diaz is capable of splitting a defense open with a cutting pass or, just as likely, taking on a player and scoring himself.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
Kickoff: 6:00 p.m. PT at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, TX
Portland Timbers: 9-7-5, 6th place in the Western Conference
FC Dallas: 10-5-5, 1st place in the Western Conference