With Will Johnson out for a projected six months after suffering a broken tibia and fibula in Saturday's 3-2 loss to Toronto FC, a relatively quick recovery time for that injury, the Portland Timbers will need to figure out just what shape their midfield should take without their accustomed pairing of Johnson and Diego Chara.
At today's practice, Caleb Porter told the press that Johnson's break had been a clean one, unlike the injury that nearly cost Steve Zakuani his leg in 2011, and that the Timbers hope to have their captain back for the start of the 2015 season.
The Timbers have been without Johnson for a grand total of seven matches since he joined the team at the start of the 2013 season. One came recently as he attended to the birth of his second child, while the other six came in 2013 due to a combination of injuries and call ups to the Canadian Men's National Team.
In those seven matches the Timbers were 2-2-3, with all three losses coming in 2013, a year in which the Timbers only lost five times in total. The two wins also came in 2013 and came at home against the LA Galaxy, the match made famous by Andrew Jean-Baptiste's last second header and Porter's exuberant celebration, and FC Dallas, who were mid death-spiral and had gone winless in ten games beforehand.
Now, with four games to play in 2014 and at least a point to be made up in the race with the Vancouver Whitecaps for the final playoff berth, the Timbers will need to make some adjustments to their lineup to compensate for the loss of Johnson.
The simplest possibility is the introduction of Ben Zemanski into Johnson's position. Zemanski's style of play tends more toward industry and hustle on defense than Johnson's more attacking inclinations and, when paired with Chara, gives the team two ball-winners but loses some of the Timbers' more long-range distribution.
If Zemanski does get the start, and Porter certainly seems inclined to slot in Zemanski given his remarks about the midfielder's qualities after today's practice session, the Timbers will almost certainly have him stay back as a shield in front of the team's regularly leaky defense while Chara pushes up the field, free to put the high pressure on San Jose's defense that led to the Timbers' first goal against Toronto this weekend and to make the quick runs down the pitch on the break that are more often Johnson's bread and butter.
There are other options for the Timbers, however.
Jack Jewsbury and Danny O'Rourke are both players who could be deployed as defensive midfielders, providing an even more defensive mindset in the center of the pitch than Zemanski. Equally importantly, either player could allow for a style similar to the one that the Timbers' rolled out against Alpha United, a single defensive midfielder capable of dropping into the back line and allowing the fullbacks to get forward or staying in the center of the pitch to shield the defense and allowing the Timbers to play with two forwards, sacrificing midfielder control for quick options in the attack.
Even George Fochive, who looks to be cast in the energetic, ball winning mold that loosely defines Chara and Zemanski, is still a possibility for the Timbers, although he remains enough of an enigma that it is hard to pin down just how the rest of the team might need to adjust for his play.
While it seems likely, even obvious, that the Timbers will go with Zemanski this weekend, these options retain their importance week to week thanks to Chara's inching ever closer to a suspension for yellow card accumulation. With no buffer following his yellow card against Toronto FC, Chara will be forced to sit a game after his next yellow.
Playing alongside an unfamiliar partner in a series of vital matches, the next two of which will come against noted bruisers San Jose Earthquakes, a yellow card for Chara looks like a strong likelihood.
Who should the Timbers slot in for Johnson? What should they do if Chara is unavailable? Let us know your lineup in the comments.