The Portland Timbers square off on Saturday against the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium (1 PM, ROOT Sports), the sole regular season contest between two sides that saw Portland come out on top last year with a 1-1 draw away and a 3-nil demolition in the return leg at JELD-WEN Field.
Last year at this time, the Timbers were preparing for their third match of their inaugural season against one of the league’s perennial powers, the Revolution looking strong with an away draw and a home win in their first two matches, with three goals to boot. The Timbers, conversely, looked every bit an expansion club and were deserved underdogs after losing their first two league matches on the road.
What a difference a year makes. Portland has opened the campaign with come from behind performances to earn a win and a draw, scoring four goals in the process, while New England is suffering a crisis of confidence with two road defeats and zero goals to show for their efforts.
After a promising start to the 2011 season, the wheels fell off at the end of the Steve Nicol era as the Revs devolved into a shadow of their former selves, a club accustomed to challenging regularly for the MLS Cup title instead tying for last place in the league standings. Following Nicol’s departure, the front office appointed as manager longtime club servant Jay Heaps, who had only a couple years prior hung up his boots to take up a position in the broadcast booth.
Heaps brings a new philosophy of possession oriented football to replace the more direct approach of his former gaffer, but despite a positive preseason the new style has yet to show any signs of effectiveness in losses to the San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City in their first two outings. So far the players have stood behind their young head coach, but a squad decimated by injury, suspension, and lagging visas is in disarray as they try to find the positives as their home opener nears.
Already sorely lacking lack defensive depth, AJ Soares stands as the lone healthy centerback while Heaps decides who to replace the suspended Stephen McCarthy, who saw red for pulling down CJ Sapong in last week’s loss to SKC after only 14 minutes, leaving his teammates doomed to a long day with a man down. Timbers supporters will recall McCarthy from last year’s first encounter in Foxborough, the second year player latching onto a rebound to give the hosts the early lead before captain Jack Jewsbury leveled matters before halftime to eventually earn Portland their first MLS point.
That was a match Portland could have won, Kalif Alhassan’s second half free kick caroming off the post with goalkeeper Matt Reis easily beaten. Alhassan would face similar frustration throughout 2011 as he failed to find the net in umpteen attempts, but has already gotten off the mark this year, scoring his first ever MLS league goal in the opening night win over the Philadelphia Union while also providing the match winning assist.
The return match in Portland in 2011 was perhaps more indicative of the rise of the Rose City and the fall of once mighty New England, having played before a smattering of fans in a cavernous Gillette, the Revolution were run roughshod by a dominant Timbers team that played to its potential in front of a full Fortress of Thorns and its ever boisterous Timbers Army. While the Timbers were still fighting for playoff contention at that point, the Revs were abysmal as they showed the form that resulted in the club’s worst ever season.
The Portland victory was highlighted by a starting role at striker for Darlington Nagbe, who grabbed the opportunity with both feet as he looked dangerous throughout his 90 plus minutes, scoring the coffin nailer as he headed home an exquisite Alhassan cross.
At that point it seemed obvious that manager John Spencer would see the light of Nagbe’s inclusion in his natural position, but the Scot maddeningly opted to revert to his favored partnership of Kenny Cooper and Jorge Perlaza for the remainder of the campaign, a tandem that couldn’t deliver on Portland’s postseason hopes.
Cooper is now gone, and the Timbers new star striker comes in the form of Kris Boyd, who notched the winning goal against Philly and nearly delivered again with his dangerous shooting in last week’s 1-1 draw away to FC Dallas. Nagbe was recovering from a preseason ankle knock and took a seat on the bench while Perlaza started the first two matches, but again Spencer turned to him for a lift. After the second season starlet netted the equalizer in Texas, he again showed why supporters are clamoring for him to partner Boyd on a regular basis from the off.
Heaps is focusing on Boyd in preparation, and whoever ends up partnering the Scot will surely give a makeshift back four reason to worry. Soares will likely see midfield stalwart Shalrie Joseph drop back to partner him in the center of defense, leaving Clyde Simms to guide from central midfield without the help of Benny Feilhalber, who injured his ankle against SKC and remains doubtful.
For the Revolution, midfield is one area they do have some depth to recover from the loss of players of Joseph and Feilhalber’s caliber, but any cohesion built up in the newly implemented tactics is sure to suffer as the preferred starters play out of position or are absent entirely. In defense, German defender Florian Lechner still awaits visa approval, so if Joseph remains in midfield, left back Chris Tierney may slot over to partner Soares, but again this leaves Heaps with a less than optimal choice to make at a key position.
Players to watch offensively for the Revolution include Kelyn Rowe, the Federal Way product bringing his Cascadian style to the flanks for the Revs, while opposite him Jeremiah White returns from playing in Europe and is likely to step in and use his exemplary speed to try to get behind Lovel Palmer and Rodney Wallace. Up top, Lee Ngyuen also brings a European pedigree, the former PSV Eindhoven player ending up in New England after being waived by the Vancouver Whitecaps.
It’s anyone’s guess who will start up top, with French signing Saer Sene potentially out injured and Colombian signing Jose Moreno yet to join the team. That may be the most difficult thing for Eric Brunner and Hanyer Mosquera to prepare for, an uncertainty of what type of forward line they will face in a reconfigured Revs lineup.
For Portland, Jewsbury and Diego Chara must exploit the lack of chemistry in the opposition midfield, breaking up the attempts at possession and getting the ball wide to Alhassan and Eric Alexander. Alexander, in his third start, will feel the most pressure to perform, with Cameroonian Franck Songo’o returning to the bench and Sal Zizzo waiting in the wings as both are recovered from knee injuries.
In the offseason the MLS adopted an unbalanced schedule for 2012, and if the Timbers could have picked an Eastern Conference opponent they had to play solely on the road, the Revolution would have been high on that list. Given New England’s early season travails, Portland will need to be wary of the fightback sure to come from a club with wounded pride, but Spencer needs to show no mercy and put his best feet forward in his formation.
Should Spencer start Nagbe, the dream partnership envisioned in Timberlandia since Boyd’s arrival will finally get its full day out in the sun. For an unsure Revs side, if this strike pairing gets going early, Heaps and company will surely become unhinged.