The Portland Timbers are almost done with the 2016 preseason. with six games out of the way, only one remains between the Timbers and the regular season: tomorrow's match against the Chicago Fire, the final match of the 2016 Simple Invitational.
Since the Timbers returned from their camp in Tucson, Caleb Porter has been adamant that the match against the Fire would be treated like a regular season match. While the other teams in the Invitational have continued to try different combinations of players on the pitch, giving players less than 90 minute shifts, the Timbers have been building toward the full match performances that we have seen from them in the team's last two matches and will see again tomorrow.
The group that will hit the pitch tomorrow will be very similar to the one that we saw last weekend against Minnesota United. With the attacking group of Fanendo Adi, Lucas Melano, Dairon Asprilla, Diego Valeri, and Darlington Nagbe well established at this point, we can be sure to see them again.
On the defensive end, the Timbers are still going through some uncertainty. While Chris Klute has made steps forward in his rehabilitation from offseason meniscus surgery and Liam Ridgewell has had some time to recover from the calf issues that have plagued him recently, it seems unlikely that the pair will be ready to go for tomorrow.
Instead, Jermaine Taylor will likely line up in the center of the defense once again, pairing up with Nat Borchers, and Zarek Valentin will hold down the left back spot. Left back, of course, has been the position that has caused the Timbers a number of problems since selling Jorge Villafana to Mexico's Santos Laguna. Thankfully, Valentin has shown a definite upward trajectory over the course of the preseason, improving on the left flank and showing well at center back as well on Wednesday.
At this point this Timbers back line has had a full preseason to play together and have looked organized and difficult to break down. Where this group needs to improve, however, is in the fullback's ability to stay balanced while still getting forward into the attack. Valentin, for all his technique, is not a player defined by his athleticism, and although he can combine well with players when he does get forward, he does not give the Timbers the same support down the pitch that Villafana was able to -- and that the team hope Chris Klute will be able to when he is match fit.
The Timbers' opposition in this one should be something of a mixed bag. While the Timbers gave their starters the day off for the midweek games of the Simple Invitational, the Fire had a number of their starters -- particularly on defense -- on the field for the second game in a row. What that means for the lineup that the Timbers will face tomorrow is unknown.
Players like trialist Johan Goossens, a dutch midfielder that the Fire appear to be trying out for the spot left vacant after the trade of Harry Shipp to the Montreal Impact, will certainly get an appearance here after getting rested on Wednesday. However, the side's anchor in the midfield, Matt Polster, played significant minutes on both Sunday and Wednesday, so playing him again would be a significant load for the player to carry in the preseason.
Regardless of who sees the pitch, the Fire will almost certainly look to control the ball and dictate the tempo of the match, something that they did against both Minnesota United and the Vancouver Whitecaps. Under the direction of new head coach Veljko Paunovic, the Fire seem to be building an identity as a possession-first team, but one that -- similar to the Timbers -- is capable of breaking quickly down the pitch to strike. Goossens has shown an aptitude for masterminding speedy counter attacks, and with players like David Accam and Gilberto on the pitch with him he certainly has some willing partners.
Portland Timbers vs. Chicago Fire
Watch it on: Streaming on Timbers.com
Kickoff: 5:00 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR
Portland Timbers: Finished 3rd in the Western Conference in 2015, MLS Cup Champions
Chicago Fire: 10th place in the Eastern Conference in 2015
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Minnesota United
Watch it on: Streaming on WhitecapsFC.com
Kickoff: 2:30 p.m. PT at Providence Park in Portland, OR