Having followed up their MLS Cup win in 2015 by missing the playoffs last season, the Portland Timbers find themselves in the middle of a six-way fight for five postseason spots in the Western Conference this year.
They visit BMO Field on Saturday on a three-match unbeaten run and having lost just one of their past seven games, though they have only won two. The Timbers boast a high-powered attack but have also struggled to keep goals out at the other end, and inconsistency has been the result.
1. There is little rhyme or reason to Portland's results this season; the Timbers have picked up points against a number of good sides and lost to more than a couple of struggling ones. What gives?
Looking at the Timbers' lineup throughout the season, the team's biggest names have been there; the attacking foursome of Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Fanendo Adi have all been regulars in the starting XI.
Look a little deeper, however, and you will see a side that has been ravaged by injuries and absences. Starting with the loss of projected starter Gbenga Arokoyo to a ruptured Achilles tendon during preseason, the Timbers have lost player after player to injuries, national team call-ups, and suspensions. Just last month the Timbers had one game where they only had 15 players in their game-day 18. The following game they were so depleted that they were allowed to make emergency call-ups from their similarly beleaguered USL squad to fill out the teamsheet.
What success the Timbers have had in the Caleb Porter era has been built on solid defensive play that serves as the platform from which Valeri, the Maestro, orchestrates the attack. This year the Timbers' defensive group has been in a constant state of flux, with the same back six playing together two games in a row only once or twice in 24 games played.
Certainly the Timbers could have dealt with the situation better -- the all-too-regular loss of team captain Liam Ridgewell to injury has proven a significant challenge to the side's performances -- but running out your second-choice right back, third-choice centre-back, fourth-choice centre-back, second-choice left-back, and your fifth and sixth-choice holding midfielders is never going to be a winning formula.
But it is no longer quite that bad. Another Ridgewell injury notwithstanding, the Timbers are mostly healthy and have finally added a replacement for Arokoyo in French centre-back Larrys Mabiala, firming up the back line and giving the side a good chance to keep it together as they make their playoff push.
2. Portland were abysmal on the road last season but slowly look to be turning that around and are unbeaten in three away from home. Are there signs that something has clicked?
As the Timbers have gotten healthier and begun to feel the pressure of the encroaching red line, the side has certainly started to click. While it seems premature to claim that the Timbers have turned the corner, there are plenty of reasons to take heart.
First of all, as mentioned above, the defence is starting to get it together. Mabiala, since his arrival, has looked like a solid and reliable contributor at centre-back, and has allowed his more adventurous partners to indulge their more aggressive tendencies - something from which players like Ridgewell and Roy Miller will certainly prosper.
Second, Sebastian Blanco has started to figure out MLS. After a workmanlike but generally uninspiring start to the season, Blanco has found his groove recently and has chipped in three goals and three assists in his last six games, taking him to five and six respectively on the season. Blanco was never expected to put up gaudy numbers but if he can continue to contribute at that rate while opening things up for the likes of Valeri and Nagbe, then the Timbers' attack will be all the harder to shut down.
Third, despite a pretty dire stretch in the middle of the season, the Timbers have the most potent attacking group in the West. Valeri and company lead the conference in goals scored and goals per game, and the combined 22 goals from Valeri and Adi are three more than D.C. United have scored as a team. It is not just the starters who are inspiring confidence, however. Dairon Asprilla, Darren Mattocks and Jeremy Ebobisse have all made an impact off the bench for the Timbers and will certainly play a role in Saturday's match.
3. Sporting KC look like Western Conference favourites but Dallas, Seattle, Houston and Portland are all locked on 34 points behind them. How do you like the Timbers' chances of ending up at the top of that pile?
All of those teams, plus the San Jose Earthquakes and Vancouver Whitecaps, have games in hand on the Timbers, much to the dismay of many Timbers fans. Despite the wailing and the gnashing of teeth on #RCTID, though, this could turn out to be a good thing for the Timbers.
After suffering through more than enough midweek matches early in the season -- terribly timed given the side's injury issues -- the Timbers come into the home stretch with about as open a schedule as you will find in MLS. Midweek games are few and far between, and at this time of year when injuries and fatigue are taking their toll on many teams, the Timbers are hoping to be past the worst that the season can throw at them.
Like they did during that fateful playoff run in 2015 (and some other team that nobody here really wants to discuss did last year), the Timbers are hoping to come into the playoffs on a roll, building off of good form and fitness at the end of the regular season to carry them through another tightly packed year in the West.
Of course, if teams can capitalize on those games in hand, then the Timbers are going to be in for a hard time. And some teams almost certainly are going to, but when FC Dallas or the Whitecaps have to pack in three more games during that same timeframe, the Timbers want to be poised to take advantage.
Projected lineup (4-2-3-1): Gleeson; Vytas, Olum, Mabiala, Powell; Chara, Guzman; Blanco, Valeri, Nagbe; Ebobisse.