Despite having Jorge Perlaza back from the flu, John Spencer seems set on replaying the formation that proved so successful on Friday night against New England Revolution. That means Perlaza will start on the bench and Darlington Nagbe will be given a chance to play as a forward for a second game. Nagbe was terrific against New England, spearheading a dynamic and fluid attack that led to the decisive 3-0 win. Yet victories for all of the Timbers’ closest rivals for the final playoff positions leaves Spencer with no choice but to go for the most explosive, highest scoring option.
Even a quick look at the MLS table reveals the necessity of earning three points at every opportunity. Only two home games remain, tonight’s tie with San Jose Earthquakes, and a rematch with Houston Dynamo in mid-October. Games away to Red Bull New York and Vancouver Whitecaps loom, and given the level of success in road games this year, the Timbers need everything they can get at home. That said, Portland has been trending in a positive direction for about a month. Four games unbeaten and ten points have brought the playoffs into clear view, especially with three consecutive clean sheets. It is unlikely that the Timbers will keep Chris Wondolowski and company from scoring at Jeld-Wen Field, but the Earthquakes are not the same team that fought back for a 1-1 draw at Buck Shaw Stadium in early August. Indeed, injuries, suspensions and off-field circumstances have conspired to leave San Jose with just one win in their last fifteen league games.
The biggest loss for San Jose will be Bobby Convey, who was very disruptive in the August meeting. His service from the wing and abilities on free kicks have helped Wondolowski reach ten goals for the second straight year. For their part, Portland is also a different team from the last meeting. Jack Jewsbury was injured and Diego Chará suspended back in August, leaving Lovel Palmer and James Marcelin as central midfielders and the now-departed Jeremy Hall at right back. Looking back, it is actually a wonder the Timbers were able to salvage a point from that game. Since Jewsbury and Chará have returned, though the initial results did not go Portland’s way, Spencer’s formation change has led to a revolution in the Timbers’ playing style and ability to possess and attack.
That shift in style, from a somewhat conservative look with dual defensive midfielders has morphed into a potent, stylistic one, particularly with the latest update of Nagbe up top. Though I don’t expect Nagbe to remain as a starting forward for every remaining game, the Timbers will be looking to duplicate their performance from the New England game on Wednesday night. Unless David Horst returns to the line-up in place of Futty Danso, I expect the starting XI to be identical to the one that took apart the Revolution. The Timbers still have the worst goal difference among the league’s top fourteen teams, so making up ground in that area could be important. But for the most part, Portland will just want to get the same kind of energy and production out of its forward players.
Despite the pressure to perform in every game at this point in the season, the Timbers were relaxed and joking at training yesterday. A seriousness will set in ahead of the match tonight but to see the players laughing and enjoying their time together was encouraging. The three MLS games tonight will have a lot to say about where the respective clubs will finish on the table. The Timbers can only control how they play against San Jose. The question is whether or not they can repeat their performance.