Over the next seven days, the Portland Timbers will play the San Jose Earthquakes twice. First up is a trip to Buck Shaw Stadium (potentially the last ever) with everything on the line for the visitors. The Timbers will have their eye on the results from the Vancouver Whitecaps-FC Dallas game but of course the most important issue will be trying to secure a result better than the wild 3-3 draw between these two teams just a month ago. So what do we expect from the eighth place Earthquakes at this point? We turn again to Nerdy Gales of Center Line Soccer:
1. The last time these two teams played, just four weeks ago, five second half goals led to a strange 3-3 draw at Providence Park. Have there been any big changes to San Jose over the past month?
There are two new players - well, one is new to Portland at least. The Quakes have a new Uruguayan right back, Pablo Pintos, who finally arrived in San Jose after a long rumored transfer (actually by rumor, I mean that he started following anyone associated with the Earthquakes on Twitter back in July). He's a definite upgrade at that position, and the rest of the back line is expected to be the same (Stewart, Hernandez, Bernardez, Pintos).
The other player, Argentinian Matias Perez Garcia, while not exactly 'new' will be available for his second game since tearing his meniscus shortly after his arrival in August. The attacking midfielder is an exciting player to watch - he has great ball skills as evidenced by his spectacular assist on Atiba Harris's goal in Colorado last weekend. It's too late in the Quakes season for them to make an impact, but just having them available gives the fans some hope for next season.
Unfortunately, Portland will not see Stephen Lenhart - Lenny came of worse in an argument with his bicycle that left him with a gash on his foot that will sideline him for the rest of the season. Which about sums up the Earthquakes 2014 season, really.
2. Diego Valeri was exceptional against the Earthquakes in the first meeting. Is there anything Mark Watson can do to provide more cover for the Timbers' best player?
Editor's Note: This question was meant to go with the questions for Wednesday's follow up game against San Jose in Portland. Valeri is out for this match due to yellow card accumulation.
My first, glib answer to that is "not much". The Quakes will have to shut Valeri down with Loctite marking and hopefully this is where the new defender Pintos comes in. Pintos was effective hooking up with the midfield in last week's tie in Colorado, but Valeri will be a challenge to contain defensively. This should be an exciting match up to watch and Valeri will surely stretch the Quakes defense. Though I think Watson will roll out a very similar lineup to last weekend, personally I would replace Cato with the experience of Khari Stephenson, who would be more suited to contain Valeri. (I'm still waiting for the phone call from the GM on that one.)
3. Lots of chatter lately about the possibility of Dominic Kinnear returning to the Bay Area. Any truth to the rumors and does that have any impact on the team over the last few games of this season?
I was going to make a joke about referring to Mark Watson again as "interim" manager but it's probably too soon. Then I was going to make another joke about referring to Mark Watson's tenure lasting a shorter time than the referee's vanishing spray. I guess we'll wait and see but the speculation about Kinnear has been entertaining, with fans surprisingly divided about whether it's a good move for the club.
It's hard to generate smoke without fire, and the conversation was sparked by the Houston Chronicle's revelation that Kinnear has been granted permission to talk to the Earthquakes - this factoid seems suspiciously specific, in that a team was mentioned by name, rather than permission given to talk to other teams in general. The rumor also gained some significant traction when Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman discussed it on ESPN during Sunday's Galaxy vs. Red Bulls game.
The statement from the Quakes front office was very circumspect: "All decisions regarding our technical staff and players will be made at the conclusion of the season." At this point of the season, eliminated from the playoffs, I don't believe there will be any impact on the players rest of the season - the coaches might be affected more in a tricky situation for them now.
Given that Kinnear is local to the Bay Area and is friends with Quakes GM John Doyle, then perhaps only a few small pieces have to fall into place at the end of he season. And he does have the current MLS record as coaching the most consecutive wins in a new stadium - which would bode well for the inauguration of the new Earthquakes stadium (to be named later) in 2015.
Jordan Stewart, Jason Hernandez, Victor Bernardez, Pablo Pintos
Shea Salinas, Sam Cronin, Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi, Cordell Cato (Khari Stephenson)
Chris Wondolowski, Matias Perez-Garcia
My answers to Nerdy's questions:
1. How will the Timbers compensate for the loss of Will Johnson who broke his right tib/fib in Toronto last week? (And, as an aside, who has written the funniest quote on his cast?)
The immediate, on field answer to this question is Ben Zemanski. The 26-year-old replaced Johnson in the Toronto FC game and will do so for the remainder of the season. He is obviously not as good as Johnson, or else he would play instead, but the drop off to Zemanski is not severe. A solid, if unspectacular holding player, Zemanski should allow Diego Chara to drift forward a bit more often, which can be very helpful in the Timbers' high pressing scheme. One need only look at Portland's first goal in Toronto to see the value of that freedom for Chara. What will be more difficult to replace is Johnson's status as the team's fiery leader on the field. There are more talented players for Portland but Johnson is the Timbers' beating heart. Hard to tell who can fill that void, though it certainly won't be Zemanski.
I was going to make a joke about Gaston Fernandez and the freedom to take penalties but it's probably too soon.
2. There are four regular season game left in the 2014 MLS season - two of them are against San Jose. Are these two Earthquakes games must win to ensure the playoffs given the other two games are against RSL and FCD.
Absolutely, these two games are vital to the Timbers' chances, especially given their rival for the fifth playoff spot, Vancouver Whitecaps, finish with the Earthquakes away and Colorado Rapids at home. If the Timbers lose in Santa Clara over the weekend and the Whitecaps beat FC Dallas, that four-point gap could very well be enough to send Vancouver into the playoffs and relegate Portland to a very disappointing sixth place finish. Scheduling quirks happen in every season and this is the second straight season where Portland and San Jose have played consecutive games. Last year the sequence came in April when there was a lot less on the line. Playing twice in five days gives Portland a real chance to take hold of fifth place, but after the first result (3-3 in September), there are no guarantees.
3. The CCL results have been going the Timbers way, and the last time we talked, you said two home wins would be enough to send a reserve squad to Honduras before the season finale against FC Dallas. With the two wins in your pocket, do you still stand by that statement, or can it still be a distraction for the Timbers during their MLS playoff run?
Champions League could very well be a bit of a distraction in a few weeks when part of the squad will travel to Honduras for the final Group Stage game. At the moment though, with nine points from nine and three huge league games to play before the next CCL endeavor, all attention is on securing that fifth spot. There are several scenarios that would see Portland through to February's quarterfinals, so a win against Olimpia won't be be required. Portland has been by far the best team in the group and very much deserve to go through, so only a catastrophe in the final game would change the expected outcome of the Timbers as quarterfinalists. But for now, getting into the MLS playoffs is the sole focus for Caleb Porter had for his players.