The Story So Far
The Portland Timbers are coming off a nice 3-1 beating of the Vancouver Whitecaps. Three different Timbers got their names on the score sheet: Sebastian Blanco, Jeremy Ebobisse, and Marvin Loria. With the win, the Timbers rise to the top of the Cascadia Cup standings and could have the trophy returned to Portland this season.
With their slim win over the Montreal Impact, the Chicago Fire are now unbeaten in three straight as they try to insert themselves into the playoff race in the East. Bastian Schweinsteiger headed in the game winner in the 88th minute, which was his first of the season. Also adding goals were Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic.
Can the Chicago Fire stretch their unbeaten run to four games in a hostile environment, or will the Portland Timbers start a new run themselves and pick up all three points at home?
What to Watch for
Chicago Fire (7-10-9, 30 pts)
As it currently sits, the Fire are just three points from getting above the red line and into the seventh and final playoff spot. A win against Portland would put them above that line, but they’ve got to get past a Timbers squad that is enjoying some home cooking. If you boil it down, two teams are fighting to get above that red line, and win for either team could see that happen.
Veljko Paunovic will likely run out a 4-2-3-1, similar to what the Timbers deploy. Look for Bastian Schweinsteiger to lead the back line. He picked up his first goal of 2019 against the Impact and was the game winner. While he may not be patrolling the midfield, he’s holding down that back line, and that could give Portland’s forwards some trouble.
I highly doubt there will be many changes to the lineup that they fielded against the Impact. Paunovic likes his team to sit back and hit on the counter. When they do, it’ll most likely be down the left side of the pitch. While they’re good on the counter, though, they can’t defend them if their lives depended on it. They are a little under 50 percent in the possession part of the game, so look for them to try and control the ball in the Timbers half.
To make sure they’re in the playoffs, the Fire are most likely going to have to run the table. They have the team to do it, it’s just whether they can put it all together down the home stretch of the season. Honestly, the Timbers and Fire are two sides of the same coin: Both are on the outside looking in, and both want to make a splash and get into the playoffs for a chance at that MLS Cup.
As for players to watch, CJ Sapong leads the team with nine goals from out on the wing; look for him to cut inside at times. Nemanja Nikolic is second on the team with with eight goals so far this season and has been playing as the lone striker. And I can’t leave out Bastian Schweinsteiger, who is no longer patrolling the midfield, but has taken up the role of center-back quite well. Though this means less goals from the big man, he’s still a goal-scoring threat.
With three points on the line and a playoff spot, I would bet that Paunovic will field most likely the same lineup that he rolled out against the Impact.
Portland Timbers (10-9-4, 34 pts)
Let this sink in: In their last six games, the Timbers have only lost once. They’re looking to put another W on the board and three points in their pocket against the Chicago Fire. One thing that has kept the ship afloat is the team’s depth and the quality of that depth: Guys like Marvin Loria and Renzo Zambrano are showing that they belong with the senior team. Also, Jeremy Ebobisse has been taking things in stride since Brian Fernandez showed up, playing out of position on the wing and then being able to fill in as that lone striker when Fernandez needs a rest.
I would expect somewhat of a rotated side for the Fire match. I think we’ll see the likes of Fernandez, Larrys Mabiala, Jose Moreira, and (most likely) Cristian Paredes. That’s what good depth can do for you. Of course they also have a date with the reigning MLS Champs Atlanta United, under new head coach Frank De Boer on Sunday. But as you can only play the match in front of you, I think that we’ll see again a near first choice 11, and I’d expect some rotation when the Five Stripes come to town.
Right now, Jeremy Ebobisse and Brian Fernandez share the team lead in goals with eight. Brian has cooled off a bit; actually, I think that the league is slowly starting to figure him out now that he’s played several matches. But I don’t think that’s going to put a damper on him as a goal-scorer. He’s a bulldog and will do anything to get on the end of a ball and put it in the back of the net. There’s no way he doesn’t finish the season with double-digit goals — it’s inevitable.
This is a very winnable match against a somewhat struggling side trying to get into the Eastern Conference playoffs. The same could be said about the Timbers: While they’re not exactly struggling, they really need to put this home stretch to good use. As it is, this team is only two points from a playoff spot, so a win here would go a long way.
As far as the wounded go, we’ve got three that are out: Jeff Attinella is lost for the season after a successful shoulder surgery. Marco Farfan is still out with a knee injury, and there’s no timetable for his return. Also on the shelf is defender Modou Jadama, who has a foot injury.
Portland have drawn 5 of their last 6 matches against Chicago in all competitions.
There have been fewer than 2.5 goals scored in Chicago’s last 3 away games. (Major League Soccer)
Portland are undefeated in their last 6 home matches. (Major League Soccer)
Diego Valeri has three goals and an assist against the Fire in his career. Sebastian Blanco is second on the team with two goals and an assist.
Jeremy Ebobisse has scored in his last three matches at home.
Against the Whitecaps, Blanco notched his 10th assist of the season. It is the second consecutive season that Blanco has reached double-digit assists.
The Timbers are the only team to have multiple players with 10 or more assists in 2019.