by Brennan Burns
The Portland Timbers travel to face the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place this Sunday (4 PM, ROOT Sports), the visiting side’s last chance to claim the Cascadia Cup with a win and the host’s opportunity to lock up the first ever MLS playoff berth for a Canadian club.
For Portland to repeat the rare feat of a road victory they accomplished last year at the unveiling of this same venue, they’ll need someone else to deliver than castaway Kenny Cooper, the lone scorer in that contest traded away in the offseason.
The stakes are much higher for the Whitecaps this year, a team who propped up the league table at this point a year ago, and are now a much improved side with postseason aspirations in their second MLS season, the first under Scottish manager Martin Rennie.
Vancouver suffered through most of their inaugural season in the modern top flight under the direction of interim manager Tom Soehn, the director of soccer operations serving a dual role akin to his Portland counterpart Gavin Wilkinson.
Soehn stepped in when the front office decided to put the wayward coaching career of Icelandic manager Teitur Thordarson on, well, ice. The decision seemed coldhearted at the time, but ultimately time is proving the decision the correct one as the club are now ever so close to challenging for the MLS Cup after a dismal first season.
That turn of fortune under Rennie offers some measure of hope to Timbers supporters that the current state of their club is temporary, and that the impending arrival of new manager Caleb Porter in the offseason can inject a similar vibrancy into a struggling Portland squad.
That newfound belief came at a cost, however, the road not entirely smooth as Rennie overhauled the roster before and during the season, the former moves resulting in a blistering start and the latter producing a club worst five match losing streak.
Two of those losses came to their closest contender for the fifth and final playoff spot, FC Dallas, who are rooting for Portland to keep them in contention.
Two home draws followed that miserable stretch, and in their last outing Vancouver beat up on Chivas USA in a 4-nil drubbing that bought the Canucks breathing room in their playoff race, renewing confidence with a win that was becoming a forgotten pastime in British Columbia.
It’s taken some time, but the midseason additions of Scotsmen Barry Robson in midfield and Kenny Miller leading the line uptop are shoring up the spine of a team that is still establishing its new identity under Rennie. The August arrival of Irishman Andy O’Brien alongside captain Jay DeMerit is looking a more formidable centerback pairing. Argentine Martin Bonjour the odd man out when O’Brien is healthy.
Dane Richards is another attacking option available to complement the speed of returning rookie Darren Mattocks, the Jamaicans hopeful of repeating Mattocks’ heroics when he scored the equalizer at Portland in a 1-1 draw in May.
Camilo Sanvezzo is another key threat for the Whitecaps, second in scoring for the club and first in assists means he is a constant threat on or off the ball. Portland’s Diego Chara and captain Jack Jewsbury are sure to be tasked with corralling the tricky Brazilian, but will need to be wary of giving Robson space in the center of the park as he’s capable of delivering long range strikes to test Donovan Ricketts from range.
In the opposite goal, Brad Knighton has unseated Joe Cannon for the starting spot, the one time second division Timber seizing the opportunity to earn regular minutes under Rennie. Knighton rewarded his gaffer’s confidence with two consecutive clean sheets in the last two matches, a single shutout something that eludes his Sunday opposition for a sixth straight match.
That woeful defensive record is in part due to injury and arguably more so to changes from Wilkinson, the latest evidence of misguided tactics on display in the last Cascadia encounter, a 3-nil defeat at the Seattle Sounders.
Portland are in disarray at the back, and a near league worst 55 goals against provides the staunchest argument for Porter to ask for a new backline for Christmas. After winning their last match against the Whitecaps in Portland, the Timbers can only hope the offense can come through again as Darlington Nagbe and Franck Songo’o did on that day.
That attacking prowess is by no means guaranteed, Portland’s 32 goals for also second worst in MLS, although Vancouver are hardly more prolific scorers with only 35 goals to date. The difference between the two is a much more flattering goal differential for the Whitecaps, albeit one not all that impressive given they’ve scored five less than goals conceded.
Statistics aside, Vancouver will happily take a negative goal differential to go with a playoff spot, while Portland must find a way to prevent their hosts from earning that berth this weekend. Bright Dike is one ray of sunshine for the otherwise gloomy Timbers, and if the barnstorming attacker can impose himself on the Whitecaps, the traveling Timbers Army may well be singing his praises as they look to take home the coveted Cascadia Cup.
After a deplorable performance in Seattle, Wilkinson and his squad must somehow find a way to treat this match as tantamount to an MLS Cup Final. The team sheet will speak volumes to the Timbers intent in this match, and the inclusion of Danny Mwanga in tandem with Dike might dissuade some naysayers that this is simply another match to evaluate players for next year.
Kris Boyd still being doubtful, this is an encounter where the Timbers must use what little attacking potency they have to offset the holes at the back.
Jewsbury may need to shift to right back to allow Mwanga to take up a starting spot, but Wilkinson can ill afford to rely on a defense that looks shakier than ever, even with the return of Hanyer Mosquera and perhaps Steven Smith from injury.
For Portland, Sunday cannot be business as usual if Cascadian glory is to be attained.
For Vancouver, it’s payback time for the loss last year, and a win would mark their first ever MLS era Cascadian triumph, securing a trip to the playoffs in the process.
When these two clubs meet Sunday, there will be no lack of motivation, and the result will simply come down to who takes hold of the match by the scruff of the neck and shows more passion on derby day.