The Portland Timbers might be more than a month and four games deep into their preseason, but tomorrow the MLS Cup Champions are set to play their first match in Providence Park of the year, facing off against NASL side Minnesota United in the first day of the 2016 Simple Invitational. Following the day's opening match, the Chicago Fire versus the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Timbers will take to the pitch in front of their home town fans for the first time since winning the Cup.
The Timbers lineup for this match should contain relatively few surprises -- only featuring one player who was not a part of the game day 18 that beat the Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup Final.
The Timbers' first choice attacking group has been constant throughout the preseason thus far since the return of Darlington Nagbe from national team duty and should not feature any surprises tomorrow. Despite an encouraging preseason from new arrival Jack McInerney, Fanendo Adi is firmly entrenched as the Timbers starting striker and will be starting in tomorrow's match. On the wings will be Dairon Asprilla and Lucas Melano, the Timbers only real choices out wide currently, but still top class players and ones who could both take significant steps forward this year after coming on strong late in 2015. And finally Nagbe and Diego Valeri will have the run of the center of the pitch.
Looking at the Timbers' defensive unit, however, there is one question to be asked: who will be the left back? And what repercussions will there be for the team's center back tandem?
At keeper, Adam Kwarasey is still the Timbers No.1 -- wearing No. 12, Alvas Powell is the team's top choice at right back, and Nat Borchers will be one of the side's two center backs. Diego Chara owns the defensive midfield spot.
The left back and second center back positions remain in flux following the slow recovery of expected starter Chris Klute and recent return from loan of team captain Liam Ridgewell. Indications from Caleb Porter this week at practice are that Ridgewell and new arrival Jermaine Taylor, both capable of playing either position, are likely to fill in the two spots. The other possibilities, new arrival Zarek Valentin and second year pro Andrew Thoma, have not been able to stake a conclusive claim to the left back spot so far this preseason. Most likely the Timbers will look to reunite Ridgewell and Borchers in the center of the pitch and give Taylor the chance to make the left back spot his own. Despite filling in for Ridgewell at center back thus far in the preseason -- and looking good doing so -- Taylor regularly played left back for the Houston Dynamo last year and has lined up there for the Jamaican Men's National Team.
With their lineups mostly set, the Timbers will be looking to build up their form and fitness as the March 6th opener against the Crew approaches. The goal from these last three preseason matches will be to get the team ready to go in as close to an actual match as possible. While there will still be more than the regular season's three allowed subs, expect most of the team to get their longest stints of the preseason so far as most of the starters play the majority of the game.
Wednesday's match against the Whitecaps will be the chance for the rest of the side to make their mark; tomorrow is going to be all about the starting XI ramping up to the start of the season.
So far this year the Timbers' defensive efforts have started off right where 2015 left off: strong and organized defending that has made things very difficult for the patchwork sides that they have faced so far. Continuing those performances against more established opposition will be key for the side, especially while keeping in mind that the defense -- 3rd best in the league in goals allowed during 2015 -- was the bedrock on which the Timbers eventual playoff run was build.
The attack, meanwhile, has been creating dangerous chances against the opposing teams that they have faced, but have yet to replicate the killer finishing that the team has shown in training. Of course, free flowing attacking play and organized defensive efforts are two very different beasts and in this case it seems that the Timbers will need to trust in the talent and already well developed chemistry of their attacking group to get things going by the start of the season.
In particular, the onus will be on Valeri, the Maestro, to pull the strings of the attack as he continues his first fully fit preseason with the team since 2013. With Melano roaming free from the left flank and Asprilla providing an increasingly dangerous option on the right, plus Nagbe ever present to play off of where he might roam, Valeri will find himself with a wealth of options in the attack and should be more than able to profit from it.
Match Information - 2/21/16
Portland Timbers vs. Minnesota United
Watch it on: Streaming on Timbers.com
Kickoff: 5:00 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: Finished 3rd in the MLS Western Conference in 2015, MLS Cup Champions
Minnesota United: Finished 3rd in the NASL in 2015
Chicago Fire vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
Watch it on: Streaming on Timbers.com
Kickoff: 2:30 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Chicago Fire: Finished 10th in the MLS Eastern Conference in 2015
Vancouver Whitecaps: Finished 2nd in the MLS Western Conference in 2015