Set to play their final match of September before October brings with it the conclusion of the 2014 regular season, Toronto FC sees their chances balanced on a knife’s edge.
Win out the remaining matches and they’re all but assured of a first-ever playoff appearace, but with each dropped point in the six games left, those chances – and hopes – diminish. Before letting the doom and gloom set in, Toronto is on the cusp of setting some new all-time records for itself, which is nice, but that they are such humble marks lays stark the realities of the situation.
It takes time to build a side that is a competitor season after season. High-profile acquisitions and money can only take a club so far, the rest is about character. And TFC’s character is about to be tested.
Another team that is aware of how tough it is to become an elite club is Toronto’s opponent this weekend, the Portland Timbers.
Last season, their third in MLS (showoffs), saw the Timbers top the Western Conference as a revamped lineup, led by first-year coach Caleb Porter surged into the playoffs as a possible contender, eventually reaching the Conference Finals, falling 5-2 on aggregate to Real Salt Lake, having got the better of their Pacific Northwest rivals Seattle in the semis.
It is a feat that they have struggled to match this season, locked in what should be an epic battle with Vancouver for the fifth and final spot in the West. Proof of their struggles lies in that the Timbers needed the Whitecaps to win only three of their last seventeen matches to make up the ground lost in a poor start.
So what is to be expected when the side’s take to the pitch early on Saturday’s afternoon at BMO Field in Toronto? A closer look at this week’s enemy, the Portland Timbers, is in order….
Having assembled a solid roster, Porter make select additions in the off-season, looking to Argentina for a pair of higher-profile transfer targets in forward Gaston Fernandez and defender Norberto Paparotto, as well as within the league, acquiring left-back Jorge Villafana from Chivas USA – with Andrew Jean-Baptiste headed in the other direction – and selecting former Seattle attacker Steve Zakuani in the Re-Entry Draft.
Former TFC forward Ryan Johnson left when his contract ran out – he’s apparently playing in China now, while the option on David Horst’s contract was declined – his rights were transferred to Houston for a 4th round draft pick. Sal Zizzo was traded to Kansas City for allocation money, Jose Valencia was loaned initially to Club Olimpo in Argentina – he is now on loan at Rosario Central, and Sebastian Rincon’s loan to Portland expired.
Another former Toronto player, Milos Kocic, retired, necessitating another keeper be brought in; Porter opted for Andrew Weber, who has spent several years in the league as a back-up for DC, San Jose, and Seattle, as well as some time with Montreal in their USL days. The contract of former Manchester United and Arsenal defender Mikael Silvestre, who missed most of the campaign with a knee injury, was terminated.
When the slow start laid bare their struggles in the forward and centre-back positions, Porter reacted, bringing in Nigerian target-man, Fanendo Adi, in May. Initially on loan from Copenhagen, he signed a permanent designated-player deal in short order.
Former Columbus defender Danny O’Rourke was added to shore up the defenses and club-favourite, Futty Danso, who had been a Timber since 2009 in the USL, was traded to Montreal for a 2nd rounder in next’s season SuperDraft.
Portland’s rejuvenation was complete when the club announced the signing of English defender, Liam Ridgewell at the end of June, on another designated player deal.
In the ten matches that Ridgewell has played for the side, they have lost just twice.
Injury concerns for Saturday are minimal; Zakuani has reportedly been shutdown as he deals with recurring muscle problems, while Kalif Alhassan was listed as Questionable prior to last weekend’s match against Vancouver.
Though the Timbers are in the midst of a busy stretch of matches with Champions League commitments – Saturday’s will be their fifth game in two weeks, Porter has been able to rotate his squad heavily with home matches against Honduran club CD Olimpia and Guyanese club Alpha United interspersed with league fixtures.
Their match on Tuesday featured a heavily-rotated, second-choice eleven, leaving their starters rested and available to meet Toronto.
As such, Saturday’s projected lineup is as follows: Donovan Ricketts in goal; from right to left – Alvas Powell, Pa Modou Kah, Liam Ridgewell, and Jorge Villafana across the back-line; Will Johnson and Diego Chara sitting deep with Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, and Rodney Wallace across the top of the midfield; Fanendo Adi taking up the lone striker’s role.
Possible alterations to that lineup, starting at the back, include either Michael Harrington or Jack Jewsbury taking up the full-back slots, with Jewsbury more likely on the right and Harrington the left – Jewsbury played sixty minutes on Tuesday in midfield, while Harrington went the full ninety.
Norberto Paparotto and Rauwshaun McKenzie manned the centre-back positions against Alpha United, ensuring Ridgewell and Kah were fresh and ready for Saturday.
The other two candidates for defensive midfield, O’Rourke and Ben Zemanski went the full match on Tuesday as well, as did Michael Nanchoff, leaving Johnson and Chara to recuperate for the trip to Toronto.
Gaston Fernandez and Max Urruti, another former Red, also started midweek, while Adi came on for the last twenty minutes. Fernandez has seen some time playing in the central attacking midfield position, off the leading striker, and could reprise that role. When he has done so, Valeri has been stationed out on the right and Nagbe swapped over the left, while Urruti tends to occupy that striker's position. There is little reason to assume Porter would tinker with a side that has gone unbeaten through four matches.
Portland enter Saturday’s match holding fifth place in the West on 39 points from 29 matches, two points ahead of sixth-placed Vancouver and nine off the pace of Dallas in fourth.
As mentioned, they have not lost in four games, with a pair of 3-0 wins over Vancouver sandwiching draws away to Colorado and home to San Jose.
They are unbeaten in their last three road matches as well, the draw in Colorado and win in Vancouver preceded by a draw in New England.
After such an impressive 2013, it came as some surprise when the Timbers began the season with an eight-game winless start, finally picking up their first victory in May, with a 3-2 win over DC United.
May was a good month, as a draw in Houston at the end of April fed into that first victory, closing out the month in the midst of a six-game unbeaten run that included draws against LA and Columbus, and wins in New York and at Chivas, before June saw them lose by the odd-goal in seven against Vancouver back home.
A 1-3 win in Salt Lake (more on this match’s significance shortly) and a 2-2 draw against Dallas would see them into the World Cup break on a positive.
A pair of US Open Cup victories during the hiatus would see them move on to the Quarterfinal round, where they lost to eventual champions, Seattle, 3-1 in additional time.
Returning to league play, a 0-1 loss against Kansas City, who they had just knocked out of the Open Cup, was followed by a 2-2 draw in Los Angeles against the Galaxy. They would lose a second-straight match to the Sounders, days after getting knocked out of the cup, falling 2-0 in Seattle to extend the winless return to three.
A pair of wins, 2-1 against Colorado and 2-3 in Montreal, would end their July on a high, whereas August began with a 3-1 loss in Los Angeles, followed by a 2-0 win over struggling Chivas the next weekend.
The aforementioned 1-1 draw in New England would be followed a devastating 2-4 home loss to the hated Sounders – a long road trip to Boston, then Guyana could partially be blamed, though they did win handily at Alpha United, 1-4.
They found a measure of redemption the next round with a 0-3 win in Vancouver, another of their Cascadia foes.
A scintillating 3-3 draw against San Jose – Chris Wondolowski and Cordell Cato gave the Earthquakes a lead, only for Powell and Ridgewell to level; Wondolowski reinstated the visitor’s advantage in the 85th minute, but Kalif Alhassan responded within a minute to seal the tie - made way for a 2-2 draw in Colorado – Valeri opened the scoring at the end of the first half, only for Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown to put the Rapids in the lead; Fernandez leveled in the 76th minute to secure a point - before winning another Champions League match on short rest, 4-2 over Olimpia.
A second-straight 3-0 win over Vancouver, this time at home – Valeri again provided the first before the result was completed via a three-minute brace from Adi - was followed by another CONCACAF goal-fest, handing Alpha United a 6-0 whooping in Portland.
It is worth noting that Portland have not beat a team that was not Vancouver or Chivas since July. Adding recent (relatively) wins over Montreal and Colorado to the list moves the mark since an ‘impressive win’ back to June 7, before the World Cup break, when they beat a depleted Salt Lake side, shorn of their American Internationals.
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses, will be posted tomorrow morning.