With the MLS All-Star Game circus finally rolling of out town, the Portland Timbers are set to host Chivas USA on Saturday at Providence Park. Despite struggles throughout the season, Portland has fared well against the Goats with a 1-1 draw and 2-0 win so far in 2014. Last time around Chivas sat back and were punished by Fanendo Adi. With Chivas in need of points even more desperately than Portland, we reached out to Alicia Rodriguez of the excellent Goat Parade site to explain where the Goats stand and how they might set up in this important game.
1. So is Chivas really any good or is it just Cubo Torres?
If we're using the measuring stick of, say, MLS as a whole, then it's too early to say Chivas USA are good. They have good games, they make good plays sometimes, but consistency is a major problem, they have obvious depth issues, and they have some glaring holes among some of the positions. They have improved from last year, and look like a good bet to improve on last year's terrible record, but that's relative. Compared to the rest of MLS, there's a lot of room for improvement.
Now Cubo, he's good. There was a point earlier this season where some Chivas USA fans espoused a belief that he was overrated. Since he's established himself as one of the contenders for the MLS Golden Boot with 14 goals and is on the cusp of having the undisputed best season by a CUSA striker in club history, those critiques have gone quiet. For my money, Cubo is a special player who is the clear MVP of the team, and depending on how Chivas USA finish the season, a possible MVP candidate of the league for how he's singlehandedly kept the team's attack afloat. He may be leaving the team at the end of the season, or he could stick around beyond 2014, but I think he's one of the elite players whose time in MLS should be savored.
2. The last time these two teams played, Chivas essentially put nine behind the ball and tried to absorb Portland pressure all game, despite playing at home. The plan backfired and Portland won 2-0. Any chance Wilmer Cabrera does something similar this time around?
To be honest, I wouldn't be all that surprised if Cabrera goes with a defensive approach again, primarily because of the depth concerns in defense. The statuses of starting center backs Carlos Bocanegra (concussion) and Bobby Burling (knee) are unknown at the moment, and while the backups have now played together a couple times, the players who have taken over and young and/or inexperienced at the position.
Last week, Chivas dropped their third straight game but played better. They held possession pretty well, and defended as a team, with just one error marring the night. If they can play like that again (minus the errors) they could be in good position, but at this point in this team's development, they could also fare poorly, with a lethargic and/or panicked showing against the Timbers.
3. Would a loss on Saturday put the playoffs out of reach?
Realistically, unless Chivas go on another four-game winning streak, or if there's some weird stratification in the Western Conference standings in the last couple months of the season, it's probably safe to say the playoffs aren't happening in 2014. In fact, I wrote their chances off after the Timbers beat them last time out. Of course, it's MLS and just about anything can happen, but if they can actually make a run of staying competitive in the playoff hunt, that's probably good progress for the year. It's not the playoffs, but as I noted, there's still a lot of building to be done with this team.
Dan Kennedy; Akira Kaji, Eriq Zavaleta, Tony Lochhead, Donny Toia; Mauro Rosales, Oswaldo Minda, Agustin Pelletieri, Marky Delgado; Erick Torres, Marvin Chavez
Here are my answers to Alicia's questions:
1. Teams that host the All-Star Game tend to do poorly in their first competitive game following the event. Has that been discussed/considered at all in Portland in the run-in to this game?
That's funny you ask about that because it really hasn't been a talking point in the lead up to the All-Star week. Perhaps that's because the Timbers are at home on Saturday. But with three players (Will Johnson, Diego Valeri and Liam Ridgewell) involved, plus coach Caleb Porter, there has to be at least some degree of distraction from the exhibition on Wednesday night. All three players logged 45 second half minutes and Porter spent the better part of the second period really coaching. It's unlikely that means they're somehow now no longer on the same page as their teammates but it certainly does change the normal scope of the week's preparations. That said, Chivas is a familiar opponent, especially with this coming as the third meeting this season. We don't know too much about Ridgewell's personality just yet but I don't think anyone in Portland would accuse Porter, Johnson or Valeri of being underprepared or not intense enough to handle this kind of distraction, though. So the likelihood is that they'll be slightly more fatigued than their teammates but otherwise probably pretty happy to have taken part in what was a cool week and an entertaining game.
2. There have been some big changes in defense for the Timbers since their last game against CUSA. In particular, they signed a DP in Liam Ridgewell - how's he doing so far, and will his addition help solidify the often-shaky defense?
As has been repeatedly pointed out by non-Portland fans this week, Ridgewell has only played three games with the Timbers so far. In those games Portland allowed one, then two, then three goals. To be fair, the result last weekend against LA Galaxy is a condemnation of the whole team, not just the defense and certainly not just Ridgewell. But the fact remains, even in such a limited sample size, Ridgewell's signing has not lifted the team to the point where defending is no longer an issue. It is worth noting that Portland did win its first two games with Ridgewell in the team, so it isn't like it's all been a disaster. However, his signing may be highlighting exactly why most teams don't give a DP contract to a central defender. Is he better than Rauwshan McKenzie? Yes, without a doubt. But does his inclusion immediately alter the outlook of the team? Not necessarily. Over time Ridgewell will probably make a more significant impact but in the short term it's just too soon to say exactly how it will all shake out in defense.
3. The Timbers sit outside the playoff places at the moment, though they are certainly within reach. What's your gut feeling right now on their playoff prospects for this season?
Until the defense can put in several consecutive solid performances, this team is going nowhere. As good as the attacking has been at times, especially lately with Valeri leading the way, the Timbers just can't score enough to outgun every team they play, every week. The only clean sheet all year was that weird 2-0 win against Chivas USA in which the Goats really didn't try to attack at any point in the game. Otherwise it's just normal that teams score two or three goals against Portland, home or away. Adding to that, Darlington Nagbe and Gaston Fernandez are a bit banged up just now (with Nagbe being worse off) so Porter will have to rely on Kalif Alhassan or Steve Zakuani, who simply do nothing to help their more defensive teammates. None of that means the Timbers can't beat Chivas on the weekend but it doesn't really bode well for what is a very difficult schedule the rest of the way with four Champions League fixtures thrown in starting in mid-August. So I don't see it happening. I think they'll be one of the better on-paper teams to finish sixth or seventh.
4. (Bonus) Prediction for this game?
Missing Nagbe and potentially Fernandez (though I do think he'll make it back for Saturday) is not good. Though Nagbe hasn't scored in the league this year, he's been Portland's second best player after Valeri. However, Valeri has been amazing of late and both Diego Chara and Will Johnson have picked it up over the past month so unless there are defensive calamities, Portland should still be good enough to win this one at home. There have only been two home victories in Portland all season (DC United and Colorado Rapids) so if there is any hope of making the playoffs, Saturday is a good chance to make it three. I do not expect a clean sheet but I do expect multiple Timbers goals.