Early on Sunday afternoon, the Vancouver Whitecaps will venture into Providence Park to take on a wounded animal: the Portland Timbers. Flying high after three consecutive victories, the Caps will be looking continue their good run of form and cement their place in the top half of the western conference, meanwhile, the Timbers are scrambling for any points they can get their hands on.
Despite being the reigning MLS Champions, Portland have not escaped their annual early-season lull. Currently second last in the West, they're six points away from a playoff spot and have lost their last three games. On the surface, Vancouver look like favourites, but as with any Cascadia rivalry match (especially in MLS), there's absolutely no telling how the chips will fall.
Given that the tactical change-up utilised by Carl Robinson to topple Toronto FC last week was almost certainly a one-off occurrence, there will likely be a slew of changes to the Whitecaps starting XI tomorrow. Fraser Aird will be suspended after his red card last weekend, so Jordan Smith will slot into the right back spot. Kendall Waston will return from suspension to (probably) reclaim his starting centre back spot from Pa Modou Kah. Up front, it's hard not to see the red-hot Kekuta Manneh and Christian Bolaños starting on the wings, but it's up in the air whether Blas Perez, Octavio Rivero or Erik Hurtado will factor in alongside them.
Hurtado linked up exceptionally well with Manneh a week ago and has momentum in his favour, but it's hard to ignore Perez's stellar Chicago-sinking bicycle kicking brace from last Wednesday. Rivero (for once) is the least likely of the Caps stable of strikers to factor into the starting lineup given his lack of form and the fact that he's recovering from a left ankle sprain. Personally, I'd go with Hurtado as he has the most to prove in front of his hometown crowd and will be especially effective during counter-attacks.
The midfield trio (provided Carl Robinson goes with the usual 4-2-3-1), of Laba, _____, and _____ is anyone's call. However, Pedro Morales looks too potent to leave out. That leaves a battle between Russell Teibert, Andrew Jacobson, and Nicolas Mezquida. Teibert is a solid defensive option and a guaranteed workhorse, which will come in handy against a fired-up Timbers team. Jacobson is also solid defensively and offers a little more composure on the ball (and the occasional screamer from 30 yards) while Mezquida's inclusion would force Pedro Morales to occupy a deeper role (which worked last time the teams met but is a risky move away from home). However, Given that Darlington Nagbe will be attempting to run rampant, Teibert and his man-marking prowess is the safest bet for selection.
Projected Starting XI:
Jordan Smith, Tim Parker, Kendall Waston, Jordan Harvey
Matias Laba, Russell Teibert
Christian Bolaños, Pedro Morales, Kekuta Manneh
Sunday's matchup has all the makings of a trap game for the Whitecaps. Four wins in a row is a rarity in the parity-obsessed MLS and the Timbers will have the full force of their supporters and chainsaw-wielding mascot behind them.
Projected Score: Portland 2-1 Vancouver (Prove me wrong, Pedro...)
What are your thoughts and predictions for tomorrow's match? Leave them in the comments below.