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Match Preview: What will the Portland Timbers look like at Sporting Kansas City?

MLS: Sporting KC at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers have struggled with injuries in 2017, but the side has never been as hard hit by injuries and absences in the defensive half of the field as they are coming in to Saturday’s match against Sporting Kansas City.

At center back Gbenga Arokoyo, Liam Ridgewell, and Amobi Okugo are all out injured, leaving Lawrence Olum and Roy Miller as the side’s likely starters and Rennico Clarke as the team’s only other rostered possibility off the bench — although Clarke has not made the 18 for T1 or T2 since the side’s ill-fated US Open Cup loss to the Seattle Sounders three weeks ago. Larrys Mabiala will not be eligible to play for the Timbers until after the transfer window opens in two weeks.

At defensive midfield Diego Chara is out injured, David Guzman is away on national team duty, Olum has been conscripted into the back line, and Okugo has suffered the double whammy of being played as a center back and then getting injured. That means that Ben Zemanski is the Timbers’ only remaining option at the spot. Darlington Nagbe remains an outside possibility to line up next to Zemanski, but after leaving last weekend’s home draw against the Sounders with a hamstring issue and not practicing at least until Thursday, it seems likely that Nagbe too will be unavailable for this match.

This leaves the Timbers with a huge — and hugely important to their style of play — hole in their usual midfield set up. The injury crisis has so gutted the Timbers that Caleb Porter told the press that full back Zarek Valentin was asked to play at the spot during training this week. Short of playing Valentin — who has never played a match at holding midfield — alongside Zemanski, the Timbers very well could be forced into a significant change of formation against SKC.

Of course, the injuries are not limited to the Timbers’ back six. In addition to Nagbe, Jack Barmby remains out after picking up another injury in training this week.

Thankfully it is not all doom and gloom on the personnel front. Sebastian Blanco is back following his red card suspension and the duo of Darren Mattocks and Alvas Powell do not appear to have departed for Jamaica’s Gold Cup national team camp yet.

So, the Timbers have some options as to how they approach the Sporting match.

If the Timbers go with their usual 4-5-1 and Nagbe is not available, expect Valentin to step in alongside Zemanski and for Asprilla to step in to the side’s vacant right wing spot. While Olum could potentially be moved up into the midfield and Valentin played at center back, the Timbers will certainly want to build from their center backs forward and Valentin was shaky at best when given a chance at the position during preseason.

Alternatively, the Timbers could change things up and look to play a different formation, trying to get the most out of the players that they have available. A 4-4-2 could see the Timbers pull Blanco and Asprilla inside and bring in Mattocks to run off of Fanendo Adi up top, but would be vulnerable to being overrun in the midfield by SKC’s 4-3-3. A 3-5-2 could see the Timbers pull Powell, Valentin, or Vytas inside to play as the team’s third center back, allowing the team to take some pressure off the midfield and clog up the center of the pitch, but would put even more pressure on the side’s center backs by putting them in an unfamiliar and demanding system.

Of course, the Timbers have little to lose in this match. A road game against the top team in the West is not a match with high expectations, even if Sporting are missing a fair number of players as well due to call ups. The low stakes but high potential reward in this match seem to be begging for a roll of the dice from Porter and company. A chance taken and a point or three earned could be just what the Timbers’ fan base needs to get them out of the miasma that has emanated from the side’s recent performances.

Match Information

Watch it on: ESPN

Where: Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, KS

When: Saturday, June 1st at 4:00 p.m. PT

Portland Timbers: 7-7-4, 3rd place in the Western Conference, 2-2 draw vs. Seattle

Sporting Kansas City: 8-4-6, 1st place in the Western Conference, 2-1 win at LA Galaxy