The Portland Timbers will find themselves facing an Eastern Conference side for the first time in a month tonight as they are set to face the Chicago Fire. The Fire, although they have games in hand on the lackluster Philadelphia Union, are tied for the bottom place in the East, and in Major League Soccer as a whole, while the Timbers have a one point hold on fifth place in the Western Conference and are poised to either move up the standings if things go their way or drop back below the red line if they don't.
With no worries about giving up points to an in-conference opponent, the Timbers and Fire will both be looking for the full three points in this one. For the Timbers, a win would mean continuing the strong home form that have seen them go 5-0-2 in their last seven matches at Providence Park, while three points for the Fire would leave them likely within striking distance of a playoff spot in the East.
For the Timbers, the continued reintegration of Diego Valeri and Will Johnson remain the most important factors for the team as they look to put together a performance that builds on the solid defensive work that the team exhibited against the San Jose Earthquakes last week.
Valeri, who returned to the Timbers' lineup before Johnson, has played in twelve games so far this season, contributing two goals and three assists in that time. That is not insignificant, but it is far off the pace of his 2014 season when he scored eleven goals and provided fourteen assists, a goal or an assist every 110 minutes.
There has been plenty of speculation as to what it is that is holding Valeri back from reaching the attacking heights that we saw from him last year, but as the season has gone on it has become apparent that Valeri is simply still shaking the rust off and is still working to get back on the same page as many of his teammates. What is encouraging, however, is that Valeri has steadily improved since getting back into the starting XI once again and, despite some frustrating passing against San Jose, appears to be approaching the same form that made him both a dynamic goalscorer and dangerous passer of the ball in previous seasons.
For Johnson, who has been back for eight games now in 2015 since recovering from his broken tibia and fibula, a similar eyeball test must be applied. The Timbers' captain has certainly not held back since making his return, going into challenges from his holding midfield spot with the same gusto that marked his play before his injury. The question that remains for Johnson and his teammates, however, is how has his mobility been effected and how does that effect his game.
After practice on Wednesday of this week, Johnson told the press that it was likely harder for his partner in the midfield, Diego Chara, to adjust to his return, than it was for him to get used to playing with Chara again. Chara, Johnson said, needed to re-learn what he was capable of, while Johnson was able to rely on the play of Chara being relatively the same.
Regardless, the Timbers as a whole have seemed to benefit from the return of Johnson, going 5-1-2 with him in the lineup.
Looking beyond the midfield, the Timbers will be unlikely to make many changes for this one. As the Timbers look to make their run further up the standings, Porter will be looking to establish a consistent starting XI for the team, something that we saw from the Timbers in both 2013 and 2014.
While some players like new arrival Lucas Melano or recently resurgent Norberto Paparatto might push for more minutes (which Melano, at least, will certainly get), this match does not look like the time for any major changes. Porter has continued to talk about Melano's need to get up to full fitness, so do not expect the youngster to get his first start with the Timbers tonight. Instead, Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, Rodney Wallace, and Fanendo Adi will be the likely front four for the Timbers, with Melano, Dairon Asprilla, and Maximiliano Urruti all waiting in the wings to come on and wreak havoc in the later stages of the game.
In Major League Soccer any team can step up to beat any other on a given day, something that the Fire showed last weekend when they hosted league-leading FC Dallas and beat them 2-0 just one week after the Timbers were blown out by Dallas 4-1. Talented but underachieving is a common refrain among losing teams in this league, and it is one that has been heard about the Fire over and over.
The Fire's attack (when healthy) is capable of being a scary sight. The strings of the Fire attack are pulled by Scottish attacking midfielder Shaun Maloney, a player capable of threading a pass or hitting a dangerous long-range striker. Surrounding Maloney are a group of quick, athletic players that are capable of getting in behind opposition defenses and putting the ball away when given the chance.
David Accam is one such player and when both are on the pitch, the Fire tend to switch over from an attack with potential to an attack that actually scores goals. The Fire's leading scorer on the year with six goals, Accam has only played 13 games with Chicago, giving him a very impressive strike rate that includes a goal scored just four minutes in to the match against Dallas.
At the other end of the pitch, the Fire have a capable defensive corps, but not one that has proven to be capable of carrying the team. With team captain Jeff Larentowicz converted last year to centerback rather than holding midfielder and steady former Columbus Crew man Eric Gehrig in the center of the defense, the Fire have been on exactly nobody's list for the best centerback pairings in MLS.
Timbers fans will recognize right back Lovell Palmer from his days as John Spencer's first choice right back for the Timbers in 2011 and 2012, while the Fire have even more of a Caribbean flavor with Trinidad and Tobago international Joevin Jones at left back.
Despite a less than impressive group of names in the defense, the Fire have not bee completely abject in their ability to keep their opponents off the score sheet. Only two teams in the East (and nine in the West, but whatever) have conceded fewer goals than the Fire in 2015; their mark of 30 goals allowed, or 1.43 goals allowed per game, seems to indicate that their defense is still capable of giving the Timbers, who have only scored 24 goals this year, plenty of trouble.
Watch it on: KPDX
Kickoff: 8:00 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 9-8-6, 5th place in the Western Conference
Chicago Fire: 6-11-4, 9th place in the Eastern Conference