The moment that we have all been waiting for is almost upon us: the Portland Timbers are just one day away from the start of the 2016 season when they will take on the Columbus Crew SC at Providence Park. With the players prepared and the stands packed, tomorrow's re-match will start the season in earnest.
The Back Line
While the Timbers have returned with most of their lineup intact from the 2015 season, there remains some consternation about the team's defense. With rock-solid Jorge Villafana sold to Mexico's Santos Laguna, the Timber turned to former Columbus Crew man Chris Klute, only to find that his rehabilitation from an offseason meniscus repair surgery was incomplete, causing him to miss most of the preseason and holding him back from being match fit for tomorrow.
Thankfully, the Timbers looked for depth over the offseason and they found it in Jamaican center back Jermaine Taylor. With Klute not yet ready to crack the 18, the Timbers will bring in Taylor to partner Nat Borchers in the center of the defense and push Liam Ridgewell out to left back, where he played for the duration of his winter loan to Brighton & Hove Albion.
This move will give the Timbers a strong and experienced back line that should give the team the sort of defensive foundation they will need against Columbus, a team the Timbers largely held in check last year but whose attack is among the most potent in Major League Soccer. Utility defender Zarek Valentin and young speedster Andrew Thoma are also options on paper, but lack the comfort and experience at the spot that Ridgewell will bring to the side.
Still, how Taylor meshes with Ridgewell on his left and Borchers on his right will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this game.
Taylor's partnership Borchers has had some time to develop over the course of the preseason, with the two largely playing together in Ridgewell's absence on loan. His aggressive, proactive approach to defending is, in many ways, a compliment to Borchers' own, with Taylor stepping up to win the ball and Borchers covering and cleaning up; Borchers and Taylor, in fact, share many of the qualities as a pairing that Borchers and Paparatto did last year, ultimately proving to be a confidence inspiring defensive pair in the absence of Ridgewell.
How Taylor will match up with Ridgewell, however, remains to be seen. The Timbers' fullbacks have always been involved in getting forward up the pitch and while we have seen Ridgewell go on the occasional jaunt up the pitch, it has been the exception, not the rule. When he does so tomorrow, Ridgewell needs to be confident that Taylor is going to be able to fill in the space behind him, particularly with Ethan Findlay lurking about the Crew's right wing and looking to prove that the fact that he was a non-factor in the side's MLS Cup loss was an aberration -- or just Jorge Villafana playing out of his mind.
The Timbers' attacking group, meanwhile, has been well established since the start of the preseason; Fanendo Adi will start up top, Lucas Melano will start on the left flank and Dairon Asprilla on the right, and the pairing of Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri will boss the center of the pitch.
If there is one wrinkle in this lineup it is that Asprilla is coming off a minor ankle injury that he suffered against the Chicago Fire last weekend. There is every reason to believe that the Timbers' explosive young Colombian is recovered: he made steady progress on the sidelines throughout the week and rejoined practice in earnest yesterday, sticking around until after the press were allowed back out onto the pitch to practice his finishing.
In this match, Asprilla's health will be an important factor as he and Melano will be given the task of keeping the Crew's dynamic, attack-minded fullbacks earnest and looking to find the spaces in behind their runs forward as the Timbers look to hit the Crew on the break. The task will not be easy as the Timbers' wingers will be matched up against Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis, two of the best fullbacks in MLS last year and two vital parts of the Crew attack. Afful, despite playing only nine regular season matches with the Crew, notched three assists last season, while Francis managed seven in his full season with the team.
Breaking down the Crew on the wings becomes even more of a vital task when we take a look at their center backs and defensive midfielders. With Michael Parkhurst and Gaston Sauro in the center of the back line, and Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp patrolling the midfield in front of them, the Timbers will not have an easy time breaking through the center of the pitch, even with Valeri and Nagbe running off of Adi and looking to penetrate into the Crew box.
Watch it on: ESPN
Kickoff: 1:30 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 0-0-0, finished 3rd in the Western Conference in 2015, MLS Cup Champions
Columbus Crew SC: 0-0-0, Finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference in 2015, MLS Cup Runners-up