The Portland Timbers square off against Chivas USA Sunday afternoon at JELD-WEN Field (2 PM, KPTV FOX 12), a clash of revamped rosters under new management rebounding from regrettable seasons in 2012.
While Caleb Porter’s Timbers enter the match disappointed in themselves following two draws, the most recent a 1-1 stalemate away to FC Dallas, the change in mindset is readily apparent in a group that would have welcomed a point after a 5-nil drubbing in their last visit to the now league leading Texas club.
Porter’s newly implemented possession style is earning plaudits for both aesthetics and effectiveness, a club record eight match unbeaten run ample evidence of improvement. Portland currently sit in the top half of the Western Conference standings after finishing next to bottom last season, just above last place Chivas.
After an opening day loss the Goats went on a tear under new head coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola (aka El Chelis), three wins (including one against FCD) and a draw putting them temporarily top of the table in March.
Those heady days came crashing down in the month following, three losses and a draw dropping them back to where they left off last year after picking up only a single point from twelve on offer.
The latest setback for Chivas was a 4-nil defeat to Sporting Kansas City, a match that fully exposed the three man backline preferred by El Chelis, one the Timbers are hopeful of exploiting themselves on Mothers Day.
The loss of captain and netminder Dan Kennedy to a red card in that loss means Patrick McLain steps between the pipes for his full debut, a player who once suited up for the Timbers U-23 team faced with stopping a Portland squad that boasts the fourth most goals scored in MLS, albeit one on a relatively dry run with only one goal in two games.
The Chivas defense must be wary of Ryan Johnson and Rodney Wallace, both expected to return to the starting lineup after serving as substitutes at Dallas, Wallace in particular a danger man after providing an assist to Darlington Nagbe.
Bobby Burling, Joaquin Velasquez, and Mario de Luna are expected to provide cover in front of McLain, although the faith of El Chelis to continue with his favored formation will be tested after the back three shipped 8 goals in their current four match winless streak.
The Mexican manager is of a similar vein to his counterpart Porter, possessing a philosophy geared toward the attack, yet his charges lack the discipline to defend as a team and are too easily caught out pushing forward.
The Timbers are under defensive duress of their own this season after a rash of injuries reduced their depth, yet Portland continues to demonstrate resiliency with Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso part of a back four including Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury that is growing in chemistry despite the rotating roster.
Much of the credit for consistency at the back goes to Donovan Ricketts, a goalkeeper in prime form after winning a fifth Save of the Week award only ten matches into the campaign.
That consistency experienced a blip when Jean-Baptiste was guilty of ceding a penalty kick equalizer against Dallas, and the second year centerback will need to learn from that mistake quickly to ensure he avoids similar entanglement with a Chivas front line featuring Tristan Bowen, Julio Morales, and Jose Manuel Rivera.
Following the recent losses of Juan Aguedelo in a trade to the New England Revolution and Carlos Alvarez to suspension, El Chelis will be looking for someone else to provide an offensive spark.
The onus falls to team assist leader Villafana, a player who has risen from an open tryout in 2007 to regular contributor in the first team today. Helping Villafana feed the visiting forwards is a midfield consisting of Edgar Mejia, Carlos Borja, and Eric Avila.
As a converted defender Borja will assume the responsibility of holding midfielder, a necessity for the away side to shut down space in the middle of the park. Diego Valeri will be Borja’s main focus, but he can’t lose sight of Portland captain Will Johnson or Diego Chara, who will be given license to push forward to keep Chivas honest on the counter.
Chivas won all three contests against Portland last year, and while many of the names engaged in those encounters are now changed, the desire of the home side will be elevated to show their transformation is further evolved than the opposition.
As the Timbers try to dominate a team they are expected to topple, the true test of Porter’s tactics will not be measured by postgame comments ruing missed opportunities or regrettable refereeing, but rather a victorious result to inspire further rumination by El Chelis instead.