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Storylines: Portland Timbers vs Vancouver Whitecaps

The first Cascadia Cup game at Providence Park sees the Timbers needing a result to stay in contention.

SOCCER: MAY 10 MLS - Portland Timbers at Vancouver Whitecaps Photo by Devin Manky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Story So Far

When the MLS season started, the Portland Timbers faced an unprecedented challenge: an MLS record 12-game opening road trip. After a grueling, up-and-down few months that saw the Timbers hit rock bottom as well as finding season-defining victories, the schedule has now completely flipped in the Timbers’ favor. After a rough week in Minnesota, the Timbers will play eleven out of its final twelve matches at Providence Park. Saturday night’s game against the Whitecaps will kick off a string of ten consecutive matches in the Rose City.

Saturday’s game will also be the first Cascadia Cup match played at the renovated Providence Park — and it is already a game with substantial stakes. The Timbers need a good result as they play through a difficult congested schedule, and a loss against the Whitecaps will eliminate the Timbers from winning the Cascadia Cup.

The Whitecaps are a team that has been in a bit of a spiral recently and have just one win in their last ten games. That one victory came last week in a 2-1 win against FC Cincinnati (that 3-0 Timbers defeat at Nippert Stadium is looking worse by the week), so the ’Caps do have some momentum. The Timbers, on the other hand, are coming off of a disappointing week after losing by a goal twice to Minnesota United and being eliminated from the US Open Cup.

The first time, these two teams met came back in May on the eve of Brian Fernandez’s first game as a Timber. Freddy Montero found an early goal for the Whitecaps, and the Timbers were unable to break through the Vancouver defense in a disappointing 1-0 loss.

In MLS play, these are two different sides traveling in opposite directions on the table. It’s a game that the Timbers should win, but there have been some crazy results that have happened in Cascadia Cup games over the years; nothing is a certainty.

What to Watch for

Vancouver Whitecaps (5-9-11, 24 pts)

Whitecaps lineup vs. FC Cincinnati

The Whitecaps approach to this game shouldn’t be new to Timbers fans who have been to recent games at Providence Park (excluding the game against the LA Galaxy). Vancouver will come in with the same bunker and counter game plan that the Colorado Rapids and Orlando City ran, and those teams, who both looked inferior on paper, came out of Providence Park with a point.

In its game against Cincinnati, the Whitecaps played in a 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree” formation. The Whitecaps will look to soak up a lot of possession, but the good news for the Timbers is that, while the Whitecaps bunker to varying degrees of success, they lack significant bite in transition. That tactic worked for the Whitecaps last weekend, and I don’t see coach Marc Dos Santos changing it up, especially in a game like this. Besides, only a team with the hubris of a Los Angeles Galaxy would be foolish enough to open themselves up in the “House of Horrors” that is Providence Park. Dos Santos is not that type of guy.

In defense, a player that the Timbers need to watch out for is In-beom Hwang. The young South Korean DP brings a lot of flair and midfield talent to a stale Whitecaps team and is capable of pulling the strings from the middle of the park. He is also capable of the occasional wonder-strike.

And of course, as many fans might remember, the Whitecaps have a pretty good shot-stopper between the sticks in Maxime Crepeau. He had a couple of excellent saves that kept the Timbers off the board back in May, and it can be argued that he is the best player on this Whitecaps team. He currently has 75 saves, which are the fourth-most in the entire league, and he will provide a sturdy last line of defense should his team be caught out in transition.

The Whitecaps have a slew of players out injured, but none of them might be more critical to what the team does than midfielder Yordi Reyna. He is the team’s second-leading scorer with four goals, but is questionable for Saturday due to an ankle injury.

Portland Timbers (9-4-9, 31 pts)

Timbers lineup vs. Minnesota United

The Timbers will obviously want to forget about their trip to Minnesota — and what better way to do it than a home Cascadia Cup match against one of the worst teams in the Western Conference?

There will undoubtedly be some changes to the lineup. Saturday night’s game will be the Timbers’ third this week in a stretch where they play six games in 19 days ... but the question is, how many changes? Will Valeri start because he played for less than 30 minutes on Wednesday? Will Blanco start yet another game in a quite congested schedule? There are so many rest-based questions that need to be asked — and if anything, this is where it hurts to go out in the two Minnesota games and get absolutely nothing in return.

Something that will be interesting to look out for in this game is how the Timbers plan to find space in the Whitecaps’ low-block. One of the best ways of doing this might be through the two fullbacks who like to bomb up the field and provide width. If the Timbers can find space this way, then they will have to balance it out with trying not to become a cross-heavy attack. That is easier said than done, but if the fullbacks can open up space and play into players at the top of the box without wasting possession with aimless crosses, the Timbers could be in good shape.

Portland looks to be mostly healthy heading into Saturday night, but I would expect the team to rest quite a few players due to this being the team’s third game this week, and the fact that they have to turn around and play another midweek game. Attinella is out for the season after his shoulder surgery, while Andy Polo remains questionable because of his hip.

With the Timbers in such a grueling stretch of games, they will need an unheralded player to stand out over the next couple of weeks that can provide an unlikely boost, especially with the constant rotations. Cristhian Paredes has become a stalwart in the midfield next to Diego Chara this season. However, the tireless Colombian number six might need a rest somewhere. If a player like Renzo Zambrano can continue to step in and contribute, like he has shown flashes of this season, it could go a long ways toward establishing a rotational spot by season’s end. Another player in that category is a Marvin Loria, who has also flashed his potential; if he can become more consistent, it will only help the Timbers come playoff time.

The Timbers may have games in hand for now, but those will slowly be exhausted over the next few weeks. Having those games in hand only means so much, and if they do not take advantage of them, the climb up the table will look a lot more daunting.

Log Slices

The Timbers’ upcoming stretch of ten consecutive home games is an MLS record for matches played in a homestand.

The Timbers are unbeaten in their last six home games (4-0-2); during this streak, the Timbers have outscored their opponents 16-3.

The Timbers lead the all-time series against the Whitecaps with a 10-7-6 record. At Providence Park, the Timbers are 6-2-4 all-time and have won three of their last four matches.

The Timbers lost both games against the Whitecaps last season. The 2-1 home defeat snapped the team’s 15-match unbeaten run. Only one player who started that game is still with the Whitecaps.

Diego Valeri has 12 assists on the season, which ranks him third in the league behind LAFC’s Carlos Vela and NYCFC’s Maxi Moralez.