The Portland Timbers travel to play the Colorado Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Saturday (6 PM, KPDX), poised to meet a club enduring headlines eerily reminiscent of those coming out of the Rose City this season.
Troubling themes of roster depletion through injury and suspension, late goals in losses home and away, and the Rapids are experiencing a spate of results all too familiar for Timbers supporters, inconsistency and late capitulations leaving even the most ardent backers at a loss for words to describe their team’s play positively.
That tune changed for Portland in their last outing, an emotionally charged 2-1 triumph over their primary Cascadian rival, the Seattle Sounders, but the song remains the same for Colorado after consecutive late setbacks in losses away to the Vancouver Whitecaps and home heartbreak at the feet of the league leading San Jose Earthquakes.
The Rapids are still mired in an uncomfortable eddy of disappointment, and now look for a way out via first choice strikers Conor Casey and Omar Cummings recent return to fitness. They’re likely to lead the line with Brian Mullan, the third forward favored in Colorado manager Oscar Pareja’s attack minded 4-3-3 formation, while newcomers Edu, Kamani Hill, and standout rookie Tony Cascio wait in the wings for their chance, competition for places now a welcome dilemma for the gaffer.
Portland will need another resolute performance from their backline to combat the expected onslaught from the hosts, David Horst establishing himself as the leader in the absence of Eric Brunner (concussion) and Hanyer Mosquera (suspended).
Horst will still be flying high following his match winning goal last weekend, but he’ll need to come back down to earth to deal with the elevated altitude and heat awaiting the Timbers, temperatures in the nineties offering withering conditions that compound the normal difficulties associated with playing in the outskirts of the Mile High City.
Next to Horst is the capable Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso, left back Stephen Smith, and captain Jack Jewsbury on the right, comprising a back four that were heavily involved in their victorious outcome, now they will need to prove they can maintain their defensive excellence on the road.
The Timbers lost 3-1 to Colorado in their inaugural MLS contest at the Rapids last year, and then fell 1-nil at home after a contentious late goal, so there will be no lack of motivation to improve their fortunes against their Rocky Mountain based opponents.
Up top for Portland, Kris Boyd will look to build on the opening goal he tallied last Sunday, while manager John Spencer may look to Danny Mwanga to partner the Scot after Mike Fucito temporarily assumed that role against former club Seattle.
Fucito looked lively in that opportunity, but the effort didn’t match the production as multiple chances went begging. Mwanga, further along in recovery from a dead leg incurred during his debut against the LA Galaxy, now looks more likely to get the nod in the starting lineup.
Despite lengthy absences of key players this season, scoring goals is less of a problem for Colorado than conceding them at a scarily rapid pace. 21 goals scored puts them in the top half of the league standings for that statistic, but that good work is undone by the 21 goals allowed by netminder Matt Pickens and a surprisingly leaky Colorado defense.
This newfound tendency to ship goals is disconcerting for Colorado fans, but one that starts to make sense when it’s considered that long term injuries to Anthony Wallace in defense and Pablo Mastroeni at the defensive midfield spot leaves the Rapids exposed.
Drew Moor and Luis Zapata are stalwarts in the defense, while Marvell Wynne and Kosuke Kimura are struggling with fitness concerns, and if either are unavailable, Pareja will look to Hunter Freeman or Tyrone Marshall. Facing an inconsistent and rotating backline, Portland would do well to press their advantage in this area, testing the Colorado defense early to neutralize the Rapids intention to overwhelm the Timbers with immediate pressure of their own.
The key battle will take place in midfield, where the growing chemistry between Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe squares off in the center of the park against Jeff Larentowicz and Chara’s fellow Colombian Jaime Castrillon, who leads Colorado with 4 goals. Argentine Martin Rivero, leading the club with 5 assists, completes a three man midfield for the Rapids, which will rely on Mullan to drop back to help defend against Portland’s preferred 4-4-2 setup.
Franck Songo’o occupies the left wing for Portland, while Sal Zizzo should be called upon to replace the injured Kalif Alhassan. Although Spencer prefers to bring Zizzo on in the second half to provide a spark, Rodney Wallace is doubtful with an ankle sprain and Eric Alexander has dropped in the manager’s pecking order of late. Limited to substitute appearances so far, Zizzo’s electric pace and incisive delivery could be the pivotal offensive element for the Timbers to capitalize on Colorado’s shaky defense.
After a relatively light schedule in June, both teams face daunting fixture congestion following this match, each with six matches in July. While the Rapids try to remedy what ails them, they must first overcome the newly confident Timbers, who are equally trying to put a less than satisfying first half of the season behind them. The Timbers, with a game in hand on the Rapids, sit three points back of Colorado, and a win Saturday draws the teams level at sixth place in the standings, just one outside a coveted playoff position.
While the Rapids are normally expected to win at home, they’ve already suffered two defeats at DSG Park this campaign, a tally not eclipsed since 2008. Uncertain home form coupled with the liability of Colorado’s defensive disarray presents Portland with the perfect opportunity to come home with a rare road win. Riding a wave of emotion from a derby win, the Timbers are poised to raise the level of misery for a Rapids squad flooded with doubt.