The Portland Timbers welcome Sporting Kansas City to JELD-WEN Field Saturday night (7:30 PM, ROOT Sports), a clash of the league leaders against the Western Conference’s current bottom feeders. Portland comes into the match after losing its fourth straight match in a loss to the LA Galaxy last outing, while SKC sports an undefeated 7-0-0 record after making mincemeat of fellow Cascadian club Vancouver Whitecaps midweek.
The Timbers were ruing their luck after what appeared a fine finish by Kris Boyd was deemed offside last week, a call that denied them a comfortable 2-nil lead before the break and instead saw Portland capitulate in an eventual 3-1 loss to the Galaxy. The breaks have inarguably failed to go the Timbers’ way this season, while their weekend opponent can seemingly do no wrong, perhaps Sporting’s only complaint thus far being that Frenchman Sebastien Le Toux appeared to have benefited from an offside position when scoring a consolation goal for the Caps.
In sport, however, teams must conjure their own fortunes, and it’s a testament to SKC’s defensive cohesion that superb netminder Jimmy Nielsen exploded in protest for the perceived slight by the officials, the goalkeeper taking personal offense to his goalmouth being breached for only the second time this season. Seven consecutive wins to start the season, with five clean sheets already, it’s now no surprise that Sporting are atop the league and threatening the Galaxy’s record nine wins to start an MLS campaign.
Portland, on the other hand, have proven somewhat of a bogey team for clubs sporting shiny win streaks, as they showed after losing to LA in similar circumstances last season, knocking off a Real Salt Lake team that had gone unbeaten in eighteen matches. When the Timbers went on a midseason winless streak of their own in 2011, the naysayers had come out in droves, and what appeared a hopeless cause against the then unbeaten in fourteen Galaxy, no one expected Portland to drill their more highly vaunted opponents in a 3-nil drubbing.
History will have no bearing on the upcoming result, but the squad has shown a resilience when faced with backs to the wall situations playing at home. That they are backed against the Timbers Army certainly plays a factor, the sheer wall of noise and energy there to inspire superhuman performance from a squad of players whose play has been just shy of pedestrian this season.
The Timbers have displayed some brilliant offense this season, highlighted by Darlington Nagbe nearly reproducing his 2011 Goal of the Year in a loss to RSL. That otherworldly strike last year came at the expense of SKC in the corresponding fixture in Portland, but again was a tally wasted as the visitors walked away with all three points.
Sporting also defeated Portland in their new home of LiveStrong Park in the return match last season, the Timbers’ only consolation a first MLS goal for Bright Dike in a 3-1 defeat. Dike is unlikely to see time on the pitch, and for Portland’s sake the hope is his contribution will be unnecessary.
Confidence in scoring has been one of Portland’s strengths so far, a belief that they can produce goals giving the supporters something to keep faith in against a team that rarely concedes scoring chances. To defeat Sporting, the Timbers will need to emulate their defensive approach, one that harries whatever player is in possession in any part of the pitch.
Manager John Spencer has tried to implement a similar high tempo style in Portland, but it has yet to fire on all cylinders as opposing sides have capitalized on defensive mistakes and the gaffer himself has left his squad exposed with questionable substitutions that have had unfortunately dramatic impact on match outcomes.
Spencer also prefers a 4-4-2 to Sporting manager Peter Vermes’ 4-3-3, a formation whose success has ridden on the ability of midfielder Graham Zuzi to occupy the primary attacking position. Zuzi’s six assists tops the league, but its his patience on the ball and knack for transitioning the ball from back to front that sets him apart as one of the league’s young homegrown stars.
Former SKC player and now Timbers captain Jack Jewsbury will have no lack of motivation against his former club as he tries to find a way to be more effective after only producing only two assists of his own in 2012, not to mention the need to neutralize Zusi. Kalif Alhassan is likely to set up opposite Eric Alexander on the wings, while Diego Chara resumes his partnership with Jewsbury, and they’ll have their work cut out for them trying to contain the likes of Roger Espinoza, Julio Cesar, and newcomer Bobby Convey.
Defensively, Portland must overcome its lack of focus at the end of each half, a task that will test the limits of Steve Purdy and Mike Chabala at outside back. Kei Kamara leads Sporting with four goals, followed closely by CJ Sapong with three, but Hanyer Mosquera and Eric Brunner will also need to be wary of the rampaging Aurelien Collen, the French centerback alreadying tallying three of his own.
Comparing the two clubs against common opposition, SKC is the clear favorite having notched wins over New England, Dallas, Chivas, RSL, and LA, all teams Portland fell to at the first hurdle with the exception of a road draw at FCD. An underdog in their own home, the Rose City lads will need to establish the tone of the match early at the Fortress of Thorns.
Sporting has only dealt with the adversity of being a goal down once this year, when a late matchwinner at home against FC Dallas stymied the stoutest challenge yet to their dominant run. For the Timbers, who have now scored first in their last two matches only to lose late on, it’s essential they maintain a positive start to the proceedings and then build on the momentum, leaving nothing to chance.
If the Timbers can take a lead into the half, the visitors will be faced with the uncomfortable position of trailing for the first time on the road. Should that happen, the Timbers Army can show Sporting and their supporters what the sound of a true cauldron of noise is when they serenade the boys in green to an upset victory.