The Portland Timbers take on the Columbus Crew this afternoon in their first return to MAPFRE Stadium since winning the 2015 MLS Cup. With both teams much changed from that final and both looking to bounce back from disappointing 2016 seasons, the three points on offer today should be hotly contested.
Front and center in the minds of Timbers fans coming into this match will be the side’s absences which continue to mount through injuries and international call-ups. Darlington Nagbe and David Guzman are the latest players to miss time for the side as the midfielders were respectively called up by the United States and Costa Rica.
Meanwhile, Liam Ridgewell and Vytas Andriuškevičius continue to be doubtful for the Timbers due to injury. Ridgewell will likely make his return from a foot sprain next week against the New England Revolution, Caleb Porter told the press this week, while Vytas remains day-to-day due to ongoing calf soreness. The Timbers have gotten one player back since last week, however, with youngster Marco Farfan getting back into training early this week after missing the Timbers’ 4-2 win over the Houston Dynamo last weekend with the flu.
Replacing those four players will not prove easy for the Timbers, particularly bringing in players to man the midfield after three matches in which the performances of the Timbers’ front six were at the heart of each win.
Replacing Ridgewell will be straightforward, once again bringing on Roy Miller after a pair of strong performances in the Timbers’ last two match. At left back the Timbers have options, assuming that Vytas does not recover in time; Farfan could step back in, providing a true left-footed player to provide width on the flank, or the Timbers could again turn to Zarek Valentin. Whoever the Timbers’ start will need to play without Nagbe in front of them and will need to bear a heavier defensive burden for it — a particularly important duty given the free-floating roles of attacking midfielders Federico Higuain and Justin Meram.
Nagbe and Guzman’s vacant positions prove somewhat more tricky to predict, given the myriad of ways in which the Timbers could reconfigure their midfield to deal with the absences.
Like for like positional swaps for both Nagbe and Guzman could well be the way that the Timbers go this afternoon, potentially bringing in Ben Zemanski or Amobi Okugo for Guzman to anchor the midfield along with Diego Chara, and bringing in Darren Mattocks or Jack Barmby for Nagbe on the left.
Alternatively, the Timbers could shuffle up their midfield, bringing Sebastian Blanco over to the left — a position that he was regularly employed in while playing in Argentina — and giving the open winger spot to Dairon Asprilla on the right. This might be the approach for the Timbers if they are concerned about the mobility of Alvas Powell, who has appeared to be dealing with a knock over the last several weeks. Asprilla is an able defender, but in this situation, the width that he brings to the match could be a boon for the Timbers, particularly as Blanco looks to tuck inside.
The Crew, meanwhile, should give the Timbers a challenge on the road, bringing a stout defense talented attacking group to bear. In the side’s first win of the season last weekend, it was the Crew’s back line that were the stars, keeping D.C. United scoreless on the season and getting their first shutout of the year, while the attack registered a pair of goals through penalty kicks.
Going forward the Crew do not yet appear to be in full gear, only scoring four goals through three games so far, but players like Meram, Higuain, Ole Kamara, and Ethan Finley remain significant threats that are capable of making something happen.
Watch it on: ROOT Sports
When: Saturday, March 5th at 4:30 p.m. PT
Where: MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, OH
Portland Timbers: 3-0-0, 1st place in the Western Conference
Columbus Crew: 1-1-1, 6th place in the Eastern Conference