The Portland Timbers put an end to their grueling run of six games in twenty days with tomorrow evening's match against the San Jose Earthquakes. With both teams on an upward swing, and the Earthquakes holding two games in hand, the Timbers will need to come away with all three points today if they want to hold onto their status as one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
Reminder: Tomorrow's match has been moved to 8:00 p.m. so don't forget to show up at the correct time, make sure your DVRs are set correctly, and prepare your excuse for being all tuckered out at work on Monday.
Coming into this match it is not clear if several key contributors will be healthy and available for the Timbers. Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe will both need to be evalutated before the match, Caleb Porter told the press on Friday, and may not be available. Of the pair, Nagbe, dealing with a sore shoulder after being sandwiched between two LA Galaxy defenders a week and a half ago, looks the more likely to play after doing some limited training with the team on Friday. Chara, however, did not join the team and instead worked separately with the team's trainers.
Also questionable for the Timbers is Dairon Asprilla. The speedy winger returned on Wednesday from an ankle sprain that kept him out of the 18 for the majority of June, but after playing over sixty minutes against Real Salt Lake, Asprilla may not be ready for another appearance just four days later and will certainly not make the starting XI.
Two players who will be returning to the starting XI for this one are Will Johnson and Diego Valeri. Both still working their way back to full match fitness following long term injuries, and Valeri's case an extra rolled ankle as well, Johnson and Valeri were not deemed ready to start three games in the space of seven days and were held out of the XI on Wednesday. However, both players should be good to go against San Jose tomorrow. The pair will add some significant punch to the Timbers' lineup, particularly if Chara and Nagbe cannot play.
With the midfield in flux there are a number of different possibilities for both the Timbers' attacking and holding midfielders. Up top, the Timbers will likely see Valeri with some combination of Nagbe, Wallace, and Fernandez in the XI. The Earthquakes are a much more solidly constructed team than the gutted version of the Seattle Sounders that the Timbers took apart last week, so expect a less buccaneering approach from the Timbers in the attack.
Johnson will get the start in front of the back line for the Timbers, but who he is partnered with will greatly affect the Timbers' approach to the game, if not their tactics outright. If Diego Chara can go, the Timbers will likely play with Johnson dropped deeper in the midfield and Chara pushing up the pitch. If Chara cannot go, however, the Timbers will be faced with a difficult decision, going with either the experience of Jack Jewsbury or the youth and aggression of George Fochive to partner with Johnson. Jewsbury's inclusion should push Johnson into a more attacking role rather than as a pure holding midfielder, while Fochive would keep Johnson in a more withdrawn role.
San Jose Earthquakes
One of the few teams who have yet to face the Timbers in 2015, the Earthquakes are largely unchanged from late last season with several key exceptions. The Quakes have largely shed their reputation as the league's thugs, dependent on Chris Wondolowski to drag the team to victory; now they are a slick counterattacking team built on a strong defensive foundation, still somewhat dependent on Wondo for goals.
While the Earthquakes are still behind the Timbers in the standings, they are still very much a part of the densely packed group competing for the playoff spots in the Western Conference, a fact that can mostly be attributed to their defensive performances so far this season. Only having allowed 16 goals in 16 games, the 'Quakes are tied for the third best defense in the league on goals allowed per game, behind only Seattle and the Vancouver Whitecaps.
With Victor Bermudez and Clarence Goodson in the center of the defense and Marvel Wynne and Jordan Stewart on the flanks, the Earthquakes have gone with experience in their back line and it is paying off. The group is not particularly fast, but with the level of positioning, marking, and tackling that they command they do not need to be.
Going forward, the Earthquakes have a talented attacking group as well, but outside of several multiple goal games they have struggled to get on the score sheet. When the attack is working, Matias Perez Garcia is at the center of it pulling the strings, and Wondolowski is banging in the goals.
"MPG" is currently on something of a roll, contributing a goal and three assists in the Earthquakes' last two games, bringing him to six assists on the season. Wondo has also been on a roll in 2015, scoring nine goals in league play so far in 2015, although only one was a game-winner. That is a better than a goal for every two games.
However, on Sunday half of that equation will be missing as Wondolowski is currently away with the USMNT for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Moreover, the Quakes will also be missing Sanna Nyassi, the team's only other multiple goal scorer, due to suspension. All this leaves San Jose with a big hole up top.
With Perez Garcia pulling the strings, however, the Quakes have a number of players who are capable of stepping up, even if they have not done so this far. The brute force of Adam Jahn or tricky speed of new acquisition Quincy Amerikwa up top could both cause problems for the Timbers if Perez Garcia is on his game.
Watch it on: ESPN2
Kickoff: 8:00 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 8-6-4, 3rd place in the Western Conference
San Jose Earthquakes: 7-5-4, 7th place in the Western Conference