by Brennan Burns
The Portland Timbers welcome the Montreal Impact to JELD-WEN Field Saturday (7:30 PM, KPTV), a banana peel of a match the hosts must not overlook with a derby in Seattle looming the following weekend.
Montreal comes off a surprise road win over the Sounders on opening weekend, a well crafted goal by captain Davy Arnaud the difference as former Timbers goalkeeper Troy Perkins notched his first clean sheet of the new season.
The poise of Perkins and a veteran Impact defense was in stark contrast to the lack of composure shown by Portland in a tantalizing 3-3 draw with New York a week past, the resiliency of the Timbers the lifesaver as they stormed back to draw after a display of ineptitude mired them in a deep first half deficit.
Miscommunication and rust combined to doom newcomer Mikael Silvestre’s debut, and while the Frenchman’s jet lag was a factor some wondered if netminder Donovan Ricketts was suffering the same ill effect after gifting the Red Bulls the opening goal in the home opener.
Ricketts performance will be under intense scrutiny in comparison to Montreal’s Perkins, the two exchanged last summer in a trade that general manager Gavin Wilkinson infamously referred to as an ‘upgrade’, a point of contention for the departing player and an unfair burden for the new man between the pipes.
Perkins was asked after his clean sheet in Seattle if he had a message for Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson when informed his former boss had watched him:
“I don’t have any words. Seriously,” answered Perkins trying nobly to remove any trace of acidity from his response.
That deal was seen by some as one of the first moves influenced by the then yet to be hired Caleb Porter, who officially accepted the role of manager shortly after and exhibited similar cold-bloodedness in his offseason makeover of the Timbers.
In spite of a near miss of a playoff spot last year, the Impact overhauled as well. Head coach Jesse Marsch left after just one year as Marco Schallibaum of Switzerland came in as replacement.
Schallibaum’s breadth of experience in the Swiss League and as a FIFA advisor was a significant contribution to his appointment, Impact owner Joey Saputo hopeful of a more European style to complement a lineup replete with talent from the continent.
The Montreal squad Schallibaum inherits includes a bevy of older stars, the trio of Alessandro Nesta, Marco Di Vaio, and Matteo Ferrari offering the heady mix of flair and maturity required to implement a disciplined approach to the game.
Canadian midfielder Patrice Bernier is the key to Montreal’s hopes, the team’s 2012 scoring leader now lying deeper in defense and acting as the pivot man responsible for pinging passes around the park.
Bernier comes up against national team colleague Will Johnson, the new Timbers captain eager to contain the man who controls the tempo for the opposition.
Johnson will need help from midfield mates Diego Chara and Diego Valeri, Felipe Martins a danger after unlocking Seattle’s defense with a deftly chipped assist.
Valeri showed skill of his own with a deliciously taken goal against New York, but the Argentine will no longer be a secret to visiting defenses after announcing himself to the league in such an audacious manner.
Valeri’s impact wasn’t limited to scoring, looking a constant threat as one of his deflected shots led to Darlington Nagbe’s goal, and was unlucky not to see Ryan Johnson win the match after finding the striker with a late defense splitting pass.
Portland’s offensive potential looked limitless last week, Jose Valencia getting in on the act as well with an incisive ball into the box that forced an own goal to equalize and cement a Timbers comeback. That newfound depth is crucial for Portland, particularly now after the midweek announcement of a knee injury forcing surgery and six weeks of recovery for Sal Zizzo.
In spite of Silvestre’s poor showing on the field, his presence appeared a positive influence on his young centerback partner Andrew Jean-Baptiste, a second outing for the duo certain to provide improved chemistry after the defense appeared out of sorts in the first league action of 2013.
While the usual suspects will be relied on to generate the home side’s attack, Kalif Alhassan must build on his assist on Valeri’s goal and prove his typically electric early season form can be carried on throughout the campaign.
Flank play will also be instrumental for Montreal, Andrea Pisanu and Sanna Nyassi dangerous from wide positions, and the surging runs of Portland wingbacks Michael Harrington and Ryan Miller must be kept in check to avoid early exposure at the back.
The onus is on Portland to score first, for all their fightback the Timbers will find the much tighter Montreal defense marshaled by Nesta even more difficult to penetrate if they go a goal down early again.
Johnson’s pace up top will be key in springing attacks behind a backline lacking pace in the middle, followed by clinical finishing to put past the in form Perkins.
A draw spawned from halftime inspiration was a commendable result in Porter’s inaugural match, now preparation is the watchword for the first time professional manager as he leads Portland once more into the fray with his system of tactical possession.
This match will be a game of cat and mouse with Montreal set up as a classic counterattacking club, and it’s up to Porter to ensure defensive frailty was excised from the squad in training to avoid a first half setback. To earn that first win in MLS, he’ll need to ready his charges from the opening whistle of the match and not rely on second half heroics.
Kick off is 7.30pm