The Portland Timbers return from a lengthy layoff to face the Los Angeles Galaxy this Sunday at the Home Depot Center (4 PM, KPTV Fox 12), a matchup of two clubs both trying to resume winning ways.
Portland may boast a four match unbeaten streak in the league, but enter this weekend’s encounter under a cloud of uncertainty after bowing out of the US Open Cup against much less vaunted opponent Cal FC in their last competitive outing. The Timbers hope that result was merely an anomaly, but the lack of scoring punch in that match highlighted a consistent symptom of the squad this season.
That issue was addressed by the signing of hometown hero Danny Mwanga after a straight swap for the goalless Jorge Perlaza to the Philadelphia Union. The twenty year old Congolese player returns to play for the club of the city where he first established roots in America, but his first contribution will come on the road at the defending MLS Cup champion Galaxy.
The champions, so unstoppable last year, now find themselves in the midst of one of the club’s worst winless streaks, seven matches with only two points to show for it firmly planting them at the bottom of the Western Conference table. The Galaxy’s woes are compounded with the loss of key players Robbie Keane (Euro 2012 Ireland duty), Edson Buddle (knee surgery), and Mike Magee (suspension).
The lack of fit forwards mean Chad Barrett, the former Southridge High School star, gets the opportunity to make his mark against his native state’s side. The Galaxy still possess a myriad of options in attack, and with Landon Donovan lurking and David Beckham providing, for all their defensive frailty LA is still dangerous going forward.
At the opposite end of the field, former Timber Josh Saunders steps back between the pipes after a stress related absence, and hopeful his return can turn things around for the struggling SoCal club.
Portland has injury worries of their own, Eric Brunner still out following a concussion in the last league match against the Vancouver Whitecaps, and David Horst will partner Hanyer Mosquera as Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso continues to recover from injury. Steven Smith is away getting married, so Mike Chabala will step in at left back opposite captain Jack Jewsbury at right back.
Rodney Wallace was hurt while away on international duty with Costa Rica, leaving either Kalif Alhassan, Franck Songo’o, or Eric Alexander to assume spots on the flanks in his absence, while Sal Zizzo’s return to full fitness provides further alternatives. Manager John Spencer will be eager to partner Diego Chara with Darlington Nagbe again, the Scot expecting new striker Mwanga to open space for his central midfielders to pick out the newcomer or Kris Boyd.
In the two clubs’ last contest, the Galaxy came away 3-1 winners at the same venue, a disheartening setback for the Timbers after two late goals from the hosts iced the game.
The late goals conceded are another recurring theme for the Timbers, an issue that needs to be remedied immediately for the club to climb further up the table. The HDC has not proven the most welcoming of grounds for Portland, two losses in two visits with only one goal to LA’s six, so Mwanga will need to close the goalscoring gap as he tries to hit the back of the net for the first time in 2012.
Portland holds a narrow advantage in the standings at two points clear of LA, but the Galaxy’s game in hand means the onus is on the Timbers to maintain their tenuous position above their opponents. The Cascadian club will need to probe the Galaxy’s suspect backline early and often if they desire to tally a fourth victory and prevent LA from doing the same.
Galaxy manager Bruce Arena’s side will surely be up for this one, a group of players intent on righting a ship gone astray in what was supposed to be another uninterrupted march to the playoffs. Now facing a formidable hill to climb, it’s up to Portland to improve their own postseason chances and make LA’s title defense an even more difficult challenge.