BEAVERTON, Ore. – The Portland Timbers have met Sporting Kansas City 18 times in the team’s Major League Soccer history. They’ve only won four times; have been shutout in half of the games. But, as they often say in sports, you’re only as good as your last result.
That last result was one of the most memorable in Timbers history, a 3-2, second-leg win at Children’s Mercy Park in last year’s Western Conference finals. It was the game that delivered one of the best goals in team history – Sebastián Blanco’s long-distance bomb over Tim Melia – and secured the club’s third piece of silverware – a second conference championship trophy.
Nine months later, both teams are still trying to reclaim last winter’s heights. After finishing fifth in the West after last year’s regular season, the Timbers are in eight place, one spot below the playoff line, with seven games to go. For Sporting, the picture is slightly more troublesome, with last year’s conference pacesetters sitting ninth going into the season’s final month.
If they’re to improve on that status Saturday (7:30pm PT, TICKETS, ROOT SPORTS), Sporting will have to do so without two of their best players, with Felipe Gutierrez and Johnny Russell both gone for international duty. Portland, though, is not without absences of their own. They’re part of the picture in this, our weekly KeyBank Scouting Report.
Building on the basics
Within the context of the rest of the team’s August, Portland’s 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake last Saturday was a strange one. Bottom line, the team got three points, but did they play that much better than in their previous games, losses to Atlanta United FC and Seattle Sounders FC?
On the surface, of course. They got three points. That matters. Not only that, but they kept a clean sheet after giving up two goals to both Atlanta and Seattle. Those signs of progress are undeniable.
But in terms of the team’s overall performance, there were still areas of concern; specifically, in attack. While the team shut down RSL at the back, leaving their guest’s best chance a last-gasp one in second-half stoppage time, the opportunities the team had created in the preceding losses suddenly evaporated. Is it better to create chances and not convert them, or not create them at all? The answer’s an obvious one.
The better question is whether the team is pointed in the right direction – a particularly important inquiry so late in the season. One week ago, it was hard to tell. Even if there were positives in the team’s two losses, they were still losses. Now, at least the team’s needle is pointed north. The lessons that will inform the group’s progress can be built on three points instead of zero.
Building, though, is what the team has to do. The team’s final seven games are almost all against teams performing at the same level as RSL. While last week was enough to claim three points, the margin was too thin to guarantee similar results going forward.
Thin upon thin
Speaking of thin: central defense. And fullback. And now midfield and goalkeeper. Yeah, this list is growing. Whereas last week the team’s depth across the back was spent, this week, you can add central midfield and goal to the picture.
Let’s start in goal. Jeff Attinella’s season has been over since he had shoulder surgery earlier this summer. His name won’t be back on the depth chart until next season. Now, Kendall McIntosh, the team’s backup since Attinella’s surgery, has picked up a foot injury. He’s listed as out on this week’s injury report, meaning Aljaž Ivačič is in line to dress for his first MLS game. After that … I don’t know. Do you have a pair of gloves?
In midfield, the rule of twos is also alive and well. With Cristhian Paredes, Andrés Flores and Renzo Zambrano all unavailable (international duty, and a suspension looming for Zambrano) the first-team depth chart’s been reduced to Diego Chara and Eryk Williamson. Obviously, that’s the most likely combination to start, but they’re not the only options.
Could we see a formation change that leaves Chara as the only player in deep midfield? It seems unlikely, given how infrequently Giovanni Savarese and his staff have gone with a different look, but Saturday’s game will find the team in a rare state. Maybe it’s time for a rare solution.
There are other names, too, that can be shifted into the middle. Both Blanco and Andy Polo have been used as central midfielders before, either as part of three-man middles or as shuttlers on the sides of a midfield diamond. Jorge Moreira has also played central midfield in the past, in Argentina. Would moving him into the middle and playing somebody like Polo or Marvin Loría at fullback be an option?
Regardless, this is starting to feel like a conversation that made its point long ago. Just as injuries to Larrys Mabiala, Julio Cascante and Modou Jadama have left Bill Tuiloma and Claude Dielna as the team’s central defenders, and fitness concerns Zarek Valentin and Marco Farfan – both recovering from injuries of their own – leave Jorges Moreira and VIllafaña as the fullback options, so too has the depth chart been spent in midfield and goal. If the team needs more options, they’re going to have to get creative about it.
No room for hope
Credit to Sporting Kansas City: they’ve pulled themselves back into the playoff race. Under Peter Vermes, the team has been a constant in the postseason, but throughout 2019, Sporting’s place has been below the playoff line. A slow start after Concacaf Champions League disappointment has extended into the last part of the season.
Over the last three games, though, the team has claimed nine points, allowed only one goal, pulled themselves within five points of seventh place and, worryingly for the Timbers, within three points of Portland. If a fourth-straight win came against the team directly above them in the standings, Sporting would become an undeniable contender for one of the West’s playoff spots.
The opposite scenario, though, is scary for Kansas City. Lose, and they’ll be six points back of both the Timbers and a playoff spot, have only five games left, and be left dealing with a glaring, recent example of why they might not be worthy of the postseason.
Put another way: They’d have no reason for hope. The momentum the team has built over the last three weeks would be blunted by a new reality. Instead of ascending to a level that would cast light on their first six months, Kansas City would leave Portland with their season on the brink.