The Portland Timbers travel to play at the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place Sunday evening (5 PM, ROOT Sports), a matchup of Cascadian rivals in a role reversal to when they met this time of year at the end of last season.
In that contest the Whitecaps were already assured of their first ever MLS postseason place, and the Timbers seized the opportunity to salvage a disappointing campaign by taking down Vancouver via a Jack Jewsbury strike, one that brought the Cascadia Cup back to Portland as Seattle Sounders fans were forced to relinquish their hold on the trophy.
Now in the third encounter between the sides in 2013 the Whitecaps are on the outside looking in, while the Timbers appear poised to earn their first ticket to the MLS Cup playoffs as they sit comfortably in third place in the Western Conference, a dark horse pick to claim the Supporters Shield.
In two previous contests this year Portland first fought back to earn a late 2-2 draw in Vancouver in May, then the Whitecaps returned the favor when they rallied to tie the Timbers in the Rose City in August.
The match represents a next to last chance for the visitors to keep a grip on the Cascadia Cup with a win, but the desperation to keep playoff hopes alive and a higher percentage chance of obtaining the cup lies with the hosts, the Whitecaps possessing a two point advantage over the Timbers in the race to hoist silverware.
Current cup standings leader Seattle will still have much to say about the cup’s final destination this season, squaring off against Vancouver next Wednesday at home before heading south to Portland for the second of back to back derbies the ensuant weekend.
A win or draw for the Whitecaps eliminates the Timbers from the cup competition, so Portland enters the match with plenty to play for as they attempt to retain bragging rights in the region.
Whoever ultimately wins it are assured of even greater reward as a fourth Cascadia Cup is on offer for all three clubs, who are tied on three cups apiece dating back to their days as competitors in the second division.
The importance of the match for both teams and the added atmosphere of a derby match means no quarter will be given by either side, and the outcome lies on which team can execute in a supercharged environment.
Vancouver are suffering from inconsistency of late, a study in contrast as a thorough dismantling of the Impact in Montreal was followed a week later by a listless loss to a second choice lineup for Real Salt Lake at home.
Which Whitecaps team shows up may come down to the availability of striker Kenny Miller, the Scot ailing of late with a muscle strain making him questionable for Sunday.
Whether or not Miller plays, captain Jay DeMerit’s return from a near season long injury provides some much needed resolve in a squad with the unfortunate tendency to switch off at inopportune times.
One player who embodies that inconsistency is Camilo, the Brazilian capable of sparking or stagnating an offense that is heavily dependent on his production. The forward is third in the league with 16 goals scored and 5 assists to boot, but the team’s results are too reliant on his conversion rate and as Camilo goes, so goes Vancouver.
Portland bring a premium South American star of their own in Argentine Diego Valeri, the league leader in assists also tallying eight goals to share the top of the team scoring table.
While Miller matches that total, the scoring drops off after that for Canadian club while the Oregon based side boasts an attack with five players with six or more strikes with Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe, captain Will Johnson, and Rodney Wallace all dangerous from the run of play.
That potency does not count newcomer Max Urruti, Valeri’s countryman opening his account in MLS with a game winning goal over the Los Angeles Galaxy last Sunday. Urruti’s all action style has seemingly usurped the Jamaican Johnson’s once presumed starting role, manager Caleb Porter enjoying an abundance of offensive options.
Vancouver gaffer Martin Rennie does possess playmakers of his own, young Canadian starlet Russell Tiebert proving a revelation as a more regular starter this season to lead the team in assists, but his distribution is dipping recently as his appearances diminished due to international duty and other absences.
The dwindling returns of the Whitecaps offense is what is most worrying for Rennie and company, shut out in 5 of their last 10 outings and only 2 wins from their last 11 games.
Finding a way to flip the offensive switch on could come back to Camilo, who has a history of scoring against Portland, including a free kick finish earlier this year.
That task may prove difficult to repeat with Portland’s Donovan Ricketts only allowing one goal in the past four games, a much more secure record than the nine goals conceded in the last seven games by Vancouver’s new Danish netminder David Ousted.
Keeping Camilo in check comes down to the skipper and midfield partner Diego Chara while also contending with Gershon Koffie, the Ghanaian notching a goal of his own the last time the Timbers came to town.
Nigel Reo-Coker and Jun Marques Davidson will tangle in the center of the park as well, angling to deter Valeri from finding space in the attacking third.
DeMerit will be in behind alongside Carlyle Mitchell flanked by Young-Pyo Lee and Jordan Harvey, a backline that will be forced to hurry in the face of constant pressure from Urruti’s harassment.
If Miller is still sidelined Tommy Heinemann may start again up top, the target man a potential handful for Gambian centerbacks Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso.
On the outside Michael Harrington and Jewsbury will play pivotal roles in supporting the wingers while containing Tiebert and possibly the pace of Darren Mattocks or the creativity of Daigo Kobayashi.
A large contingent of the Timbers Army is expected to travel for this last big away day of the regular season, a group that would be more than happy to see a third straight 1-nil win provide the impetus to again sing about their house in the middle of BC.
In addition to every other reason the Whitecaps are eager to take down the Timbers this weekend, perhaps most important as a point of pride is to finally take three points off Portland in the top flight, particularly at home.
The eventual winner this weekend takes a big step toward the playoffs and the Cascadia Cup, so while a setback for Portland reduces the chance of adding to the trophy cabinet, a loss is near fatal for Vancouver.
As derbies go the stakes could hardly be higher, and a formidable task awaits both sides when the Cascadian clash kicks off in Canada.