The newly crowned Cascadia Cup winning Portland Timbers face the Supporters Shield winning San Jose Earthquakes this Saturday at JELD-WEN Field (3:30 PM, NBC Sports), the final regular season contest for both teams.
While the home team is fresh off a much needed confidence boost in a season that offered little more than regional bragging rights, the visitors come in validated that their hard-nosed, dogged approach paid off with the number one seed heading into the MLS Cup playoffs.
Postseason position long since secured, San Jose need not field their first team in a match that holds no bearing on this season, other than a chance for Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski to meet or beat Roy Lassiter’s league record of 27 goals. The mark is impressive in its longevity, a feat unmatched since the inaugural season of MLS in 1996.
Whether Earthquakes manager Frank Yallop risks Wondo to chase records or preserve him for the playoffs is an intriguing debate, but Portland will be well aware of the striker’s danger after he came off the bench to score a brace to erase a two goal Portland lead in their last encounter at San Jose.
For Portland, the match is one more audition for players to impress incoming manager Caleb Porter, who arrives in December. Interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson will see out his last match in charge from the touchline with choices to make, particularly in defense.
A Hanyer Mosquera knee injury and respective ankle and knee surgeries for Eric Brunner and Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso leave a porous backline with more holes to fill, and offers a chance for Andrew Jean-Baptiste to bookend his rookie season with a pair of starts.
In a season that started brightly for Portland, with goals from Jean-Baptiste, Kalif Alhassan, and Kris Boyd in a 3-1 home win over the Philadelphia Union back in March, it comes down to a final home fixture to close out a season of despair in the Rose City.
While AJB may see minutes, Alhassan and Boyd are less likely to see time despite their availability. Although mostly healthy, Alhassan is seeing scant minutes since his last start in July, and his last action was over a month ago in a cameo substitution appearance in a loss to Real Salt Lake.
Boyd was initially deemed out for the season following a strain in the last match against the Earthquakes, but the Scot’s recovery is ahead of schedule and it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll earn a spot on the bench for what may be his swan song in Portland.
Other players that may get an extended look include outside back Ryan Kawulok and assists leader Eric Alexander, and certainly Danny Mwanga must be in consideration after the Congolese scored three goals in two games against San Jose this year.
If Wilkinson is feeling truly adventurous in trying out untested talent, reservists Charles Renken, Jose Adolfo Valencia, or Sebastian Rincon might be given their league debuts.
Yallop is much more assured of his lineup, be it regular starters or players further down the pecking order, the Earthquakes proving a very deep and balanced side not solely reliant on Wondolowski’s exploits. While Boyd still leads the Timbers in scoring with 7 goals, San Jose boast four players with more goals, the most telling reason the Earthquakes sit atop the league while the Timbers dwell in the league cellar.
San Jose’s 71 goals thus far this year are far and away the league’s best, Portland’s paltry 33 tallies less than half their opponents’ output. Former second division Timber Alan Gordon, Steven Lenhart, and Simon Dawkins are all dangerous options complementing Wondolowski, and provide Yallop the luxury of selection on Saturday.
It’s not all offense that elevates the Earthquakes above the rest of the league, netminder Jon Busch’s 7 clean sheets and a backline anchored by Victor Bernardez and Ramiro Corrales allowing only 42 goals compared to 55 for the Timbers.
In the center of the park, Marvin Chavez stands third in the league in assists, and it will be vital for Portland to contain the Honduran or see him supply San Jose’s predatory sharks, who continue to capitalize on his distribution.
Ultimately, the biggest danger lurking for Portland is Wondolowski, who will be eager to break his scoring duck in Portland after twice coming up empty last year and earlier this year. The added motivation of a scoring record to cement his career among the league’s greats is a desire the Timbers must stymie in order to show true progression, and that regional success can be carried over to next season.
Although the match may be little more than an exhibition with little on the line for either team but pride, expect a formidable showing from the Timbers as they look to display Cascadian glory to supporters clamoring for success.
Dreams of achieving the heights of San Jose in 2012 long since vanquished, the Timbers can show over the final ninety minutes of the campaign that a disappointing record is not what defines their club.