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When you're playing a mortal rival for the third game in a row, in yet another do-or-die game which your team must take seriously let it get its ass handed to it, it becomes increasingly difficult to write these lengthy game previews.
I mean, I've pretty much analyzed the hell out of the Portland - Vancouver matchup by now. Hey, did you know that Vancouver is quite good, but Portland is pretty good as well, and the key to victory will be for us to score more goals than them? There are a few complicating factors now: Wes Knight's shoulder is no better and he'll miss at least this game, and Marc Weber is ominously suggesting that Zurab Tsiskaridze might be out as well. Then again, Tsiskaridze hasn't been starting for the last several weeks and Knight's probable replacement at right back, Ethan Gage, helped win us a championship game two years ago, so I'm managing to contain my terror.
But there is one lingering issue that concerns me. Portland scored thirty-four goals during the regular season, which isn't a lot (the infamously inoffensive Whitecaps mustered thirty-two). But fifteen of them came off the foot of attacking midfielder/forward/minor deity Ryan Pore, and another ten courtesy of former Columbus Crew first-round pick and tall, cool drink of water Bright Dike. Yet those two players were shut out last game and only Dike even mustered a half-decent scoring chance. Dike bagged one in the regular season finale (and a fine poacher's effort it was) but Pore has been all-but-neutralized.
Now, Vancouver's defense is pretty good. But it was just as good back in July when Portland retained the Cascadia Cup on our home pitch and Ryan Pore made our back four look like a squad of inebriates. If anything, it was better since it didn't have Willis Forko in it. So given that the Timbers need two goals to tie the series and three to win it, are playing at home in the second leg, had a better record than us in the regular season (thanks in no small part to the fact that they kicked the crap out of us in most of our games), and their so far quietly-lurking leading scorer has more goals than our three leading scorers combined...
Oh, there's the terror. I was wondering when you'd show up.
The Whitecaps aren't without advantages. They haven't allowed three or more goals in a season all season, and only allowed two in a game six times. Of course, three of those six were against the Portland Timbers. Let's not think about that. Let's instead consider that, surprisingly, Vancouver hasn't lost by two or more goals yet this year and have been a pretty good road team defensively: they're allowed four goals in their last ten road games, including a 0-0 draw the last time we visited Portland. They actually only won three of those ten thanks to the aforementioned scoring incompetence, but what matters in this case is the goal differential rather than the result.
The loss of Wes Knight will hurt our goal-saving efforts, on paper. But, as I mentioned above, I'm actually not that concerned. It's not just because Ethan Gage is quite a good, underrated young player. If Gage has a weakness, it's that he lacks Knight's all-round game on the wing: no Bloody Long Throw, not enough entrepreneurial spirit to get forward and play crosses, challenge for the ball near the centre of the pitch, or generally do anything other than a centre back's role of standing back and occasionally shooting as hard as he can. Knight actually isn't the best attacking player, but his mere presence is sometimes enough to throw defensive teams off their game plan and his ball skills are good enough that no team can afford to lay off him. Gage lacks that ability, although of course he has one more professional goal than Knight does. The occasional brain fart aside (and Knight is by no means immune to those), Gage is actually a rock-solid defensive player and he tackles marvelously. Strictly in terms of conceding as few goals as possible, the step down from Knight to Gage at right back isn't all that large.
Tsiskaridze's injury would be more damaging if Teitur Thordarson actually started Tsiskaridze over Willis Goddamned Forko. Since he doesn't, it's hard for me to bemoan having Chris Williams for fifteen minutes as a substitute rather than Tsiskaridze. Williams has almost exclusively played in case of injury this season, but he's a perfectly capable second division journeyman who can play six thousand positions and not make a single spectacular play while never actually putting a foot wrong either. He's even got three Canadian caps under his belt, simply because when you need to fill out a roster with someone who can play good, reliable soccer Chris Williams isn't a bad choice. He'll be fine.
Hopefully, Vancouver won't sit back too far. As we have been shown a million times, bunkering for a long period of time is a bad idea unless you're really good at it. Given that Vancouver is at their most effective when retaining a lot of possession and haven't actually played an all-out defensive bunker since I've been a fan, it's safe to say they haven't got much of a chance if they fall into the John Limniatis Memorial 10-0-0 Formation, cover their eyes and ears, and hope they don't get scored on too often. Luckily, Teitur Thordarson's match-day tactics generally revolve around deciding between "attack attack attack" and just "attack", so we can assume he won't decide to suddenly channel Jose Mourinho. Let Dunfield, Davies, and Nash play with each other as much as possible because the Timbers have nobody in the centre of the pitch who can counter their touch. Try to poach the occasional chance and force Portland to respect our attack, and our chances of preventing goals will greatly improve.
No matter how much I worry, the odds favour Vancouver if they keep their heads about them. The mental makeup of the defense, at least, has never been in doubt (aside from the aforementioned goddamned Forko). There's no reason to think Ethan Gage can't hold the fort, and we have a midfield more than capable of giving them support. This won't be an easy game, but it is a probable one.
I think that's what terrifies me most of all.
News and Notes:
- As mentioned in Thursday's game day thread, this game will take place at 4,892-seat Harry A. Merlo Field on the campus of the University of Portland, due to renovations beginning at the Timbers' usual home of PGE Park. This has to be considered an advantage for the Whitecaps, as Portland's usual playoff home crowd of almost 15,000 chanting, whooping, and hollering fans was one of the most intimidating in North America.
- Right back Wes Knight's shoulder injury has been confirmed to be a separation: Knight hopes to be back if the Whitecaps make it to the next round but with a shoulder injury of that magnitude that's unlikely. Having played right back in a provincial tournament as a youngster with a broken arm, I can only say: you pussy! Admittedly, I wasn't taking many throw-ins and that's kinda what Wes Knight is for. Also, I was playing against thirteen years old in Calgary instead of professionals in Portland, which I grudgingly admit might have made a difference.
- In spite of the limited seating at Menlo Field, the Portland Timbers have made tickets available to the Vancouver Southsiders for a road trip. The USSF doesn't require a second-division team to set aside seats for away supporters, so the Timbers organization has gone above and beyond the league requirements to try and ensure the best possible atmosphere and safest environment for tonight's game. I wonder if the Seattle Sounders are paying attention.