Another weekend, another massive challenge for the Vancouver Whitecaps, as they try to march towards their second straight post-season appearance. This week, it's the Portland Timbers trying to rain on their parade. Do the Whitecaps have what it takes to end their two-game losing streak? The 86forever writing team weighs in.
Overview: On the heels of Wednesday night's no-pointer MLS All-Star game, Vancouver Whitecaps fans will no doubt be focused intently on their side's potential six-pointer vs Cascadian rivals the Portland Timbers on Saturday. This is a big game, among a slate of matches pitting Western Conference foes. With a victory over the Timbers and a helping hand from some MLS brethren, Vancouver could vault from 5th place to 2nd, only two points shy of conference leaders Real Salt Lake. With only five points separating first place from sixth, the conference log jam is now tighter than Don Garber's hair weave.
The Whitecaps say Cascadian victories are one of their season objectives. They succeeded in knocking off Seattle earlier this year, but have yet to defeat the Timbers in MLS play - the most recent outing a 2-2 draw in Vancouver in May. Vancouver and Portland have tangled six times thus far, with the Timbers enjoying a 4-2-0 record. Closer inspection reveals that all four Timbers victories have been by one-goal margins, and Portland has never scored more than twice in any of them.
This season, the Timbers have been exceptionally tough opponents at home, with a 6-2-1 record. In fact, they've won six of their last seven at home. They've only allowed six goals at Jeld-Wen field in nine matches, but that's not to say there isn't a window of opportunity for the Caps. Both sides are looking to regain some earlier momentum - Portland coming off two road matches having taken only a single point after drawing with the Union and then dropping a 2-1 decision to San Jose last week. It was the Quakes' first-ever win over the Timbers, so maybe history will repeat itself. Unfortunately, the Caps are winless in 18 of their last 20 matches on the road. No doubt, Vancouver have their work cut out for them.
Timber to watch: The Timbers have a very balanced attack: Leading scorer Ryan Johnson (6 G, 4A) ranks only 12th among MLS scoring leaders. But they've got five players with at least four tallies so far this season - three of them midfielders. Holding off Portland is going to be less about shutting down any one sniper, and instead working hard to disrupt the Timbers' distribution in midfield. The Timbers' 2013 MLS all-star M/F Diego Valeri (7A), who's played RM/RW in the Timbers' 4-3-3, is certainly worth keeping an eye on. The Argentine sees a lot of the ball, distributes well, and has shown that he is definitely a threat to score.
Whitecap underdog: I'm looking for the Caps' Matt Watson to seize the opportunity posed by Jun Marques Davidson's ill-advised head butt, and Gershon Koffie's yellow accumulation. Watson will certainly draw into the Caps' starting XI for the Timbers match, and needs an exceptional outing to convince Martin Rennie that he's finally worthy of selection to the matchday 18.
Predicted starting XI: Ousted *Lee *Rusin *Leveron *Harvey *Hurtado *Reo-Coker *Watson *Teibert *Camilo, *Manneh.
Predicted score: 2-1 Portland
Overview: The Portland Timbers. Cascadia Cup. Derby match. If that didn't just set your heart racing then you should probably go and see your cardiologist ASAP! This game is a big one on many different levels, folks. First of all we've lost two straight matches in the league, so it's important that we don't drop any more points. We're in first place in the Cascadia Cup competition ahead of Seattle on goal differential only, so if we win then we can pull out a small lead on them, but it's not going to be easy.
The back line could see a change, but it sounds as though Brad Rusin will be fit enough to play after picking up an injury last weekend against the Union. We won't see Andy O'Brien again as his hamstring still hasn't healed completely. Up front we can probably expect to see the usual Teibert-Camilo-Miller combo (Rennie said he expects Kenny to play on the weekend, but he's doubtful now so who knows). The midfield is the biggest concern for me because of the suspensions to Gershon Koffie (accumulated yellow cards) and the naughty Jun Marques Davidson (for the red card he received for head-butting Philly's Keon Daniel). I think that Rennie will put Rusin in the holding MF role and Mitchell will partner with Leveron at the back. I would expect given the circumstances and the fact they're on the road I would expect to see the typical defensive style that they play on the road.
As for who goes in net this weekend I'm going to stick my neck out and predict that David Ousted makes his debut for the Whitecaps. This isn't a sign of disrespect to Brad Knighton (who I think has played very well especially in recent weeks), but Ousted is supposed to have ‘it' and ‘it' just might be what Vancouver needs to steal some points in the Rose City.
Make no mistake about it - this is going to be a tough one for Vancouver, but fortunately the Timbers form of late hasn't been that great either. Both teams lost last weekend and in their past 6 respective MLS matches Vancouver has won 3 and Portland has only won twice.
Timber to watch: Will Johnson. He can pass the ball, he's good a free kicks and he seems to be a player that really, really gets under the skin of the Whitecaps' faithful.
Whitecap underdog: expect Matt Watson to fill in for Koffie in midfield. Watson may not be the flashiest player on the roster, but works hard and plays well when Rennie calls upon him.
Predicted starting XI: Ousted * Harvey * Leveron * Mitchell * Lee * Rusin * Watson * Reo Coker * Teibert * Camilo * Hertzog (if Miller can't play)
Predicted score: 1-1
Overview: I don't want to rain on anybody's parade, but if you are really excited about the Whitecaps taking on the Portland Timbers, you really shouldn't be. A perfect storm of injury and crap has begun to pelt the Whitecaps as they march towards the most important part of this season, and unfortunately, they play some pretty good teams in that stretch. Now, the Timbers are just two points up on the Whitecaps in the Western Conference standings, but think about the Whitecaps situation here; Brad Rusin was dinged up last week, as was Kenny Miller who probably won't play. Andy O'Brien was supposed to be back weeks ago, but has now missed a healthy chunk of games, while our best defensive midfielder (Davidson) and one of our best all around mdidies (Koffie) will miss the Timbers match due to suspension. While the 'Caps still have Camilo and his 13 goals, I can't imagine he'll exactly have a spring in his step after flying to and from Kansas City recently.
What does all this mean for Saturday? It's likely going to be a 'grind-out-a-decision-and-hope-for-the-best' type of match, and that isn't a good thing. I think David Ousted will get his first start for the 'Caps; can he be the difference?
Timber to watch: He hasn't scored a goal in six matches, but I think Diego Valeri could cause some Whitecaps on the pitch. He does have four goals on the season, and he actually leads the Timbers in shots, meaning he gets his chances. In fact, he has 11 more shots than the second place on that list, Darlington Nagbe, who's a pretty good player in his own right.
Whitecap underdog: The writing appears to be on the wall here, and after two straight losses, I expect David Ousted to get his first start of the year. Brad Knighton has played decently, sometimes brilliantly, but you brought Ousted here for a reason. If he plays, I believe it will be a statement match.
Predicted Starting XI: Ousted *Lee *Rusin *Leveron *Harvey *Watson *Reo-Coker *Teibert *Camilo *Heinemann *Manneh
All right, you may commence telling us we are wrong.