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Know Your Enemy: Portland Timbers – Part One – The Lineup and The Form

Previewing TFC's upcoming opponent, the Portland Timbers, assessing their lineup and form prior to Saturday's match

Caleb Porter and Greg Vanney exchange pleasantries prior to last season's encounter
Caleb Porter and Greg Vanney exchange pleasantries prior to last season's encounter
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The May crunch has now past, but still the weeks ahead are fraught with challenge.

The last two weeks were of the dispiriting sort. The woeful display in Montreal, the humbling loss in the home opener, and an entertaining, if ultimately fruitless, departure from the Voyageurs Cup to a last-minute breakdown, scored by former Red Dominic Oduro.

The New England experience was better, a solid result on the road against a dangerous opponent, but the injury to Jozy Altidore (he will be out four-to-five weeks and then gone for the Summer's Gold Cup after that), and of course the long-feared official announcement that the Toronto Argonauts will be plying their trade on the fragile grass at BMO Field come the 2016 season, have left a psychological wound.

The games, however, must go on.

It makes sense to break a long season up into sections; there are infinite ways of doing so, but whatever way one slices it, Toronto is about to embark on the next phase of the 2015 season. The long road trip was hurdle one, the fast-and-furious pace at the start of May was number two, and now they must settle into act three: a run of weekly matches that will carry them through the next two and a half months before a busy August rears its head.

Before then the Gold Cup will steal some players, but overlooking that concern for now, this is the part of the season where TFC needs to make a statement. Are they a true contender? Or has another year's off-season spending spree been an inadequate response to that which ails?

With five of the next six matches at home, this is the chance to collect the points required to firmly announce one's presence in the reckoning for the Eastern Conference. As it stands, Toronto is a factor - tied with Chicago on ten points from nine matches for the sixth and final spot in the East, but the time is now to climb that table, pressure the teams above and leave those below trailing in the dust.

June sees a home and away series with conference leaders DC United, as well as home matches against the eminently-beatable Montreal Impact and New York City, but first a pair of Western foes make their way to the shores of Lake Ontario.

San Jose is a concern for next week; for now, the task at hand is Portland and their mighty Timbers.

A closer look at this weekend's opponent, the Portland Timbers, is in order.

The Lineup

Having barely missed out on the post-season last year – they finished a measly point behind Vancouver for the last berth – Caleb Porter, in his third season at the helm of the club, set about strengthening his side in the off-season.

Before the rebuild, a stream of players made their way out the door. Steve Zakuani sadly retired, unable to find his prior form after that devastating injury. Long-time servant Michael Harrington was traded to Colorado, while the likes of Kalif Alhassan, Pa Modou Kah, Rauwshan McKenzie, and Danny O'Rourke either saw their options declined or were out of contract. Jose Valencia, who never really settled in MLS, returned to South American, while goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts was selected by Orlando City in the Expansion Draft.

Taking into account both the departures and the frailties of last season's squad, there were two key positions that needed addressing: goalkeeping and defense.

As such, Porter made swift decisions, addressing each in turn in December, as soon as the roster freeze was lifted. December 8, a busy day in MLS, saw Ghanaian keeper Adam Larsen Kwarasey arrive on a transfer from Norwegian club, Stromsgodset IF, while the deeply-MLS-experienced centre-back Nat Borchers was acquired via trade with Salt Lake, and another defender, Jeanderson Pereira, joined on a free from his native Brazil.

The exits of Alhassan and Valencia left vacancies in the wide positions too, which Porter addressed with the acquisitions of Dairon Asprilla, yet another Colombian, and more recently, Ishmael Yartey, another Ghanian, on loan from Swiss club FC Sion.

Rounding out the additions were a pair of SuperDraft picks in Nick Besler, the younger brother of Kansas City's Matt, and Andy Thoma, a highly-touted full-back – both are on loan at Timbers 2 (T2), their USL side.

Given such limited change, at least by MLS standards, Portland looks a very similar side to the one that took to the field last season. There is of course one caveat to that statement – injuries have serious dampened their start.

Both Will Johnson, the club captain, and Diego Valeri, their leading scorer (eleven goals and fourteen assists last season), suffered long-term injuries in the close of 2014, and were not available through the first two months of this year. As they return, Portland will very much appear a reinforced version of their former selves.

Heading into Saturday's match, there are still a few injury concerns. Three players are currently listed as 'Out', Ben Zemanski, who torn his ACL in preseason, Michael Nanchoff, recovering from a hernia operation, and Johnson himself, though he could well make his return to MLS at the scene of his devastating leg break.

That will undoubtedly be the Canadian storyline heading into the weekend: does Johnson return to the starting lineup? Over the past few weeks, Johnson has been finding his game-fitness with a spell in USL with T2, playing their last three matches, going an hour in the first and the full ninety in the last two, captaining the side and collecting one assist; all building towards his eventual first team return.

And so, their starting lineup for Saturday is a bit of an unknown.

The projected eleven is as follows: Adam Larsen Kwarasey in goal; from right to left – Alvas Powell, Nat Borchers, Liam Ridgewell, and Jorge Villafana across the back-line; Will Johnson will pair with Diego Chara at the base of the midfield, while Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, and Rodney Wallace will span further afield; Fanendo Adi tops the formation.

football formations

Much of that lineup is as set in stone as much as lineups in MLS can be – Ridgewell, Borchers, and Kwarasey have played every minute of each of Portland's eleven matches. Powell and Villafana have missed a mere five and nine minutes, respectively. Nagbe has appeared in every match, while Chara has missed just one.

Should Johnson not be deemed fully match-fit in time, one of Jack Jewsbury or George Fochive will assume his central position alongside Chara.

Further ahead, options become more plentiful. Asprilla and Yartey are options on the flanks, more likely to replace Wallace on the left than Nagbe on the right. Should Valeri not be ready to go – he has started their last two matches after making his introduction as a substitute – Nagbe could move into the middle, opening up the right to other options.

There is a small chance that Porter opts for a different forward, preferring one of Max Urruti or Gaston Fernandez to Adi, though now that the band is back together, he will seek to get them some time on the pitch as a unit.

And there have been moments where he has dropped the preferred 4-2-3-1 for a 4-4-2, fielding two strikers with one of Urruti or Fernandez, more likely Urruti as Fernandez has been used more as an impact sub, joining Adi in attack.

With a healthy, first-choice lineup at their disposal, this is a bad time to meet the Timbers, though it could be worse, as it is unclear how well they will click in this debut.

The Form

Portland enter Saturday's encounter sitting towards the bottom of the Western Conference, in ninth-place on thirteen points from their eleven matches – if they were in the East, they would be fifth, for comparison's sake.

With a record of three wins, four losses, and four draws, the Timbers have been slowly rounding into form after a slow start. Oddly, they have been as successful in their travels as at home, collecting seven points in six matches with a record of two wins, three losses, and a draw; compared to six points in five matches at home.

2015 began with a run of three draws – 0-0 at home against Salt Lake, 2-2 against Los Angeles again at home (an Adi brace either side of a Gyasi Zardes strike was cancelled in the 92nd minute by Alan Gordon), and another scoreless encounter, this time on the road, at Kansas City – only to lose their fourth, falling 2-1 at Vancouver – Nicolas Mezquida and Adi exchanged goals, Robert Earnshaw's last-minute strike proved the winner, to close out the month of March without a win.

They would find that victory upon returning home, winning 3-1 against high-flying Dallas – Borchers and Tesho Akindele exchanged first half goals, Urruti and Chara clinched the victory in the second frame, only to drop a 0-2 result to expansion Orlando City the following week – Cyle Larin and Kaka providing the ammunition. Two more road matches in April ended in split results, winning 0-1 away to New York City – Asprilla scoring the game's only goal, then falling 1-0 to Pacific Northwest rivals, Seattle – the lone goal scored by Clint Dempsey.

Another Cascadia Cup match the following weekend ended in another scoreless draw, at home against Vancouver to start May.

Crisscrossing the continent, Portland would play Montreal next, winning 1-2 thanks in part to the stunning return of Valeri, who made his first start and scored a stunning goal to double the lead six minutes after Borchers had put the Timbers in front. Montreal would respond within a minute through Dom Oduro, but fell short in the end.

Most recently, they were humbled in Houston, falling 3-1 on a Will Bruin brace and a third from Giles Barnes; Adi scored the only Timbers goal, courtesy of a Valeri assist.

Rest assured, Portland will be eager to put their early inconsistencies behind them as they look to catapult up the Western Conference standings in the coming months. The return of Johnson, to the place where he fell, will be an emotional boost for a side that has been lacking in inspiration without the services of their captain and the talents of Valeri.

Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses, will be posted in due time