The Portland Timbers are back on the road this weekend, a trip to the nation’s capital on tap as DC United serves as host at RFK Stadium on Saturday (4 PM, ROOT Sports).
Both clubs come into the match on the heels of draws in their last outings, Portland twice coming from behind to draw level at the Vancouver Whitecaps while DC earned its first point in over two months time after equalizing at home against Sporting Kansas City.
Equivalent recent results is where the comparisons end between two teams headed in opposite directions.
After making the playoffs last season with the league’s third best record and coming just short of contesting the MLS Cup, high hopes of repeating those feats were soon dashed as United laid claim to sole possession of last place in the league with losses in eight of their first ten matches to start the campaign.
Contrast that change in fortune to that of the Timbers of a year ago, a club third from bottom of the table in 2012 with realistic postseason aspirations extinguished by mid-season. The club’s nadir is now a passing shadow, the team transformed under new manager Caleb Porter as Portland sits third in the Western Conference and only five points shy of the best record in MLS courtesy of a ten match unbeaten streak.
The draw versus SKC was a welcome relief for downtrodden DCU head coach Ben Olsen, yet counterpart Porter was less enthused of his squad’s showing in spite of the fightback that saw his side claim another late tie in a Cascadian derby on the road.
While Jose Valencia’s late goal showed a glimpse of the potential potency of the club’s future strikeforce, the flat nature of the team’s performance as a whole was viewed as fortunate to avoid defeat. That elevated sense of expectation is a sign of progress for Portland, a club now considered never out of a game.
That reputation is even stronger given the fact that the draw was achieved after going a man down, a questionable red card issued to Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso meaning fellow Gambian Pa Modou Kah will make his debut alongside Andrew Jean-Baptiste in central defense.
Kah is a veteran of the top flight in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, but after only a couple weeks training with his new teammates he’ll rely heavily on the lengthy MLS experience of Jack Jewsbury, Michael Harrington, and netminder Donovan Ricketts to adapt to the pace and physicality of the league.
Although Portland already exceeded their away points total from a year ago, they are still seeking a second win on their travels, and United presents perhaps the most winnable opportunity from a form perspective.
A return from injury by last year’s top goalscorer Chris Pontius brings a big part of DC’s offense off the sidelines, but former Whitecap John Thorrington is still trying to get match fit in time to shore up the league’s second leakiest defense with some much needed cover from midfield.
Former MLS MVP Carlos Ruiz is enduring a disappointing first season with United, an ankle sprain limiting his involvement as the Guatemalan is yet to get off the mark in 2013. Another former MLS MVP in captain Dwayne De Rosario is doing little better, a subpar return of one goal and one assist a clear indication of the team’s struggles this season.
A league low six goals is ample motivation for the home side to improve on an abysmal scoring rate, Lionel Pajoy the lone forward to tally for DC thus far up top. Portland are by no means impregnable at the back, but a career season from Ricketts means it will take something special for United to unlock a Timbers team difficult to break down from open play.
Two goals created directly and indirectly from set pieces is still a thorn Porter is trying to excise from his side, the two goals conceded to Vancouver from a free kick and a throw-in offering some areas to focus on in training in the buildup to this weekend’s contest.
Portland benefited from a spot kick of their own in that match, the second penalty awarded this campaign converted by captain Will Johnson, who now leads the club with five goals.
The Timbers Army are certainly glad to see some calls going their way, but goals from the run of play are what’s desired from supporters who travel in numbers hoping to see the same fluid football that two weeks ago ripped apart another team in a downward spiral, Chivas USA.
Portland are dominating possession this year, but that prevalence has only equated to all three points in four out twelve matches to date. If the Timbers are to take their game to the next level and join the league’s elite, a better ratio than one quarter of matches won is required.
That starts with the dismantling of a DC defense already in shambles, where former Porter protege Perry Kitchen is trying to re-instill the winning belief he had under his one-time college coach.
Another player familiar to Portland fans is James Riley, the defender moving over from a one year stay at Chivas in the offseason after a longer stint with the Seattle Sounders beforehand.
Riley is trying to shake off an injury to feature against Portland, so instead defensive responsibility likely falls to Ethan White, Chris Korb, Dejan Jakovic, and goalkeeper Bill Hamid to help Kitchen repel a Portland team capable of throwing everything but the sink at the goal.
An injury that saw Darlington Nagbe leave the last match early means a potential opportunity for more minutes from the start for Frederic Piquionne or Kalif Alhassan, so how Porter rotates a lineup that looked tired in the second Cascadia Cup match of the season is sure to be scrutinized with an important US Open Cup tie just days after the long trip to the East Coast.
In the United midfield, former FC Edmonton player Kyle Porter is adjusting well to the step up from the NASL despite his team’s travails, a goal and assist more production than flashier teammate Nick DeLeon, who is still trying to replicate the form that made him a Rookie of the Year runner-up last season.
DCU is looking to build on their most positive result in ages, whether they can do so comes down to the tempo brought by Portland. If the Timbers don’t come into this game with the gas pedal to the floor from the opening whistle, they could again find themselves trying to recover from a deficit on the road.