The Portland Timbers are set to host Eastern Conference road warriors Toronto FC tomorrow, returning home to Providence Park after Wednesday's tough 1-1 draw against the New England Revolution. This will not be an easy match for the Timbers against a road tested side, but with the potential for the side's third win of the season a result at home is a must.
Toronto come to Providence Park tomorrow for their eighth consecutive road match to start off the 2016 season. In that long run away from BMO Field, the Reds have picked up 1.57 points per game -- the best road record in MLS this season -- largely thanks to their extremely stingy defense. With a back line packed with experienced and talented players shielded in the midfield by USMNT star Michael Bradley and former Timbers captain Will Johnson, Toronto have been very difficult to break down this season, allowing less than a goal per game and only barely getting edged out by the Colorado Rapids as the most stingy defense in MLS to date.
Tomorrow's match will be Toronto's final in their season opening road trip, as BMO Stadium will reopen for business next weekend and TFC fans will get to see their team play at home for the first time this season. How Toronto come out in this match will go a long way toward determining how it plays out: having won their last two matches, will the Reds finish their eight weeks on the road strong, or will they sputter with a return home now in sight?
The Timbers will hope to have some say in answering that question and, with more changes to the team's lineup from Wednesday in the forecast, they should be able to field one of their strongest lineups so far this season to do so.
Among those potentially making their return to the starting XI are two of the team's designated players: Diego Valeri and Liam Ridgewell. The duo were missing due to very different circumstances -- Valeri was suspended following a disappointing pair of yellow cards against the San Jose Earthquakes two weeks ago, while Ridgewell is making his return from a hamstring injury that has kept him sidelined since the first match of the season -- but both should have an immediate impact.
While Toronto have been far from prolific this season, scoring only eight goals in seven games, the Timbers will need a strong defensive performance to contain the reigning MLS MVP, Sebastian Giovinco. While the side has looked strong defensively in the last two matches, the return of Ridgewell should add some stability to the lineup and give the Timbers the organization they need to lock down Toronto's still dangerous counter attack.
Facing a player like Giovinco who has been given license to roam and who can pop up anywhere in the attack, the ability of Ridgewell to keep the Timbers' defense in line -- something that has bitten them from time to time in his absence -- will be vital here, particularly if the Timbers look to push their fullbacks forward in possession.
At the other end of the pitch, the return of Diego Valeri should give the Timbers a much better chance of breaking Toronto down. While the Reds have had very few weaknesses exposed in their back line so far, the few teams that have had success against them have done so by making runs at the back line and playing through balls in behind; for the Timbers, no player is as adept at breaking down back lines as Valeri so his return will be vital to the Timbers' game plan against Toronto.
Of course, Valeri is not the only component of the Timbers' attack that will need to be on point to break down Toronto. Fanendo Adi and Lucas Melano in particular will need to be active and making aggressive runs along the Toronto back line is the Timbers are going to get on the board.
This still leaves one spot available in the Timbers' attacking group. With Melano able to line up on either wing, the Timbers could insert Dairon Asprilla back into the starting XI for the first time in four matches. Alternatively, the Timbers could give a look to Wednesday's goalscorer, Jack Barmby, a player who will certainly be bringing with confidence after getting on the board against the Revolution. Neither of these players has been in favor as a starter recently, and the Timbers could also give the more experienced Darlington Nagbe or Ned Grabavoy the start in a more advanced position and fill in the center of the midfield with the other.
Watch it on: ESPN
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: 2-3-3, 9th place in the Western Conference
Toronto FC: 3-2-2, 3rd place in the Eastern Conference