The Portland Timbers travel to play MLS debutantes Montreal Impact this Saturday at Stade Olympique (11 AM, KPDX), both teams eager to earn all three points and make a climb up their respective conference tables.
The third Canadian club in a now nineteen strong league, the Impact are no strangers to the Timbers, longtime opponents in the second division, and the Quebecois side brings a decidely French flair to North America’s top flight with its own rabid fan base. Like Portland last year, a passionate group of supporters helped justify the league’s interest in Montreal, and early signs point to another successful addition to a league growing in stature globally.
As an expansion franchise, the Impact are experiencing similar doldrums to those the Timbers suffered through in 2011, a schedule front loaded with away matches. While they await completion of their permanent home of Saputo Stadium, the lack of home comforts has not unexpectedly contributed to the meager haul of only one win and two draws from their first eight contests.
While their lone win over lowly Toronto FC won’t strike much fear into the Timbers, Portland has not started much brighter than the neophytes, a win over league leaders Sporting Kansas City last weekend providing a much needed lift to a team that had lost four consecutive matches. The Kansas City connection to these two clubs is a notable one, Portland captain Jack Jewsbury facing former teammate and longtime friend Davy Arnaud in Montreal, who now wears the captain’s armband for his newly adopted city.
Arnaud finds himself in a situation similar to Jewsbury in leading a newly formed group, a collection of castoffs, draftees, and acquisitions coming together to try and gel under a first year manager. Just as Portland manager John Spencer led the expansion Timbers in his first season in charge after years as an assistant, Jesse Marsch now takes the reins with a footballing philosophy honed under the tutelage of Bob Bradley at both the club and national team levels.
Despite their relative newcomer status to MLS, Montreal have no lack of veteran leadership alongside Arnaud, evidenced by the presence of Jamaican Donovan Ricketts between the pipes. Throughout the spine experienced players abound, from Italian Bernardo Corradi up top, Algerian Matteo Ferrari in the center of the park, down to Colombian Nelson Rivas in defense.
Marsch has made many shrewd signings, picking up a trio of former Cascadians in ex-Seattle Sounders Sanna Nyassi, Tyson Wahl, and Lamar Neagle, who have all found significant roles in the lineup. He’s also brought in other skilled youngsters such as Justin Mapp from the Philadelphia Union, Justin Braun from Chivas USA, and top draft pick Andrew Wenger from Duke University.
The results haven’t yet proven to be greater than the sum of their parts, but there is no lack of talent or guile in the league’s most recently christened squad. Portland struggled with the same sort of chemistry issues last season, and although offseason transfers bolstered depth, a spate of injuries and question marks at outside back forcing Spencer into ever changing starters this season.
The questions at left back may have finally found an answer in midweek signing of Scotsman Steven Smith, but supporters will likely need to wait to see the former Rangers defender on the pitch until after transfer paperwork clears. To make room for Smith on the roster, James Marcelin was waived, an unpredicted move that leaves many trying to decipher exactly what was behind Gavin Wilkinson’s ‘non-soccer related’ reasons that led to the Haitian’s abrupt departure.
Marcelin had been a carryover from the Timbers final second division campaign, and fared well in a backup role in the inaugural MLS season, but had mixed reviews in his cameos thus far this year. Whether his sudden release has any psychological impact on his teammates is yet to be seen, but the players may instead be focusing on another new teammate in Mike Fucito, who joined last week in a trade from none other than the Impact. The former Sounder hopes to ingratiate himself to the Timbers Army despite his rearing at a rival, and his insight to Montreal’s methods may prove beneficial in the Timbers’ attempt to earn a rare road triumph.
For Portland, hopes key on their scoring touch returning after relying on Sporting to provide the margin of victory with an own goal in the last outing, and a replication of Troy Perkins’ first clean sheet would only aid their cause. Kris Boyd and Darlington Nagbe are predictably the most potent threats, with Eric Alexander proving the most influential provider from midfield.
For both sides, a consistent theme of defensive lapses have plagued their results, each club taking leads in multiple matches only to see their opponents draw or win in the end. Portland managed to break that duck against SKC, while Montreal was able to make a two goal lead stand up in their eventual 2-1 win over Toronto. Neither team will be overly confident given their inability to exert control over a match from start to finish, and in what’s expected to be another physical encounter, expect goals to come from set pieces or counterattacks rather than patient buildup.
Spencer showed last week he’s capable of recognizing the threat posed by the opposition, and the inclusion of Lovel Palmer in midfield proved a masterstroke in slowing down an SKC side that had brushed past all before them prior to their visit to the Fortress of Thorns. Spencer has kept his cards close to his vest in preparation for Montreal, but Palmer as a starting defensive midfielder is no guarantee as the exit of Marcelin shows midfield is an area of significant depth for Portland.
Tactical changes were required to combat the prowess SKC had shown in its blistering start to the season, now against a struggling side it will be interesting to see if a rather different and more offensive strategy is employed. The Timbers are at their best when they have their foes on the back foot, and if positive pressure can be applied early, the visitors may be able to unleash an arsenal of attacking weapons.
For the Portland faithful, hope rides on the boys in green simply continuing a tradition of success in Montreal, one that saw the Timbers win four, draw two, and only lose once in second division visits to the City of Saints. Should the Timbers carry on in MLS as they fared then, belief in a turnaround of fortunes will be alive indeed.