What a long strange international break it has been. After a few hearts were broken and a couple were emboldened D.C. United and the Portland Timbers are back in action on Sunday night at Providence Park.
When we last checked in with the Timbers they were still fighting for a spot Major League Soccer’s Western Conference playoffs. While they did not play during the international break they received a bit of help with their playoff aspirations with Sporting Kansas City losing twice and the Vancouver Whitecaps losing to the New York Red Bulls last week. As it stands Portland are still a point behind Sporting (12-8-12, 48 points) for second and four points behind Vancouver (15-11-6, 51 points). A win on Sunday against D.C. would not only get Portland into the playoffs but also set up a very fascinating final match of the season against the ‘Caps.
As for D.C. Sunday’s match will have no bearing on their playoff aspirations as they were eliminated weeks ago. Although United might be out of contention United have been using the last few matches to start building for 2018. The club’s infusion of new talent (Bruno Miranda, Steve Clark, Paul Arriola, Russell Canouse) has at least brought some change of fortune and some new energy. With two matches left in their 2017 campaign and changes coming United’s players will be looking to impress to hopefully keep their jobs.
Getting a result in Portland would be a great way to make a good impression. D.C. have never won at Providence Park in three tries (0-2-1, 1 point). Overall the Timbers carry a 3-2-2 record against D.C. In their lone encounter last season at RFK Stadium D.C. defeated the Timbers 2-0 with Steve Birnbaum (7’) and Luciano Acosta providing the goals for the home side.
The biggest question will be the mental shape of their star midfielders: Paul Arriola for United and Darlington Nagbe for Portland Timbers. Both were part of the United States Men’s National Team side that lost 2-1 against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday and found themselves on the outside looking in of World Cup 2018. Since both players played significant minutes in that match and in the Panama match from the following Friday it will be interesting to see if United coach Ben Olsen and Timbers coach Caleb Porter opt to give them rest and to give them time to get their heads back on straight. Of course it may also be a matter of getting players the chance to get back on the pitch and get out whatever pent up frustration may still exist over such a calamitous midweek result.
United goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s status is also very much up in the air. Hamid has not played in the last three matches for D.C. due to a back injury.The question has also been raised as to whether Hamid will be back with D.C. next season. He is out of contract in December and speculation has it that he may be off to Europe. Clark has started the last three matches and is being looked at as a potential replacement for Hamid. While he doe have good vision and generally avoids making mistakes he doesn’t possess quite the athleticism that Hamid has.
If Portland are to come away with three points in this match it will be through their work down the left flank. Both Nagbe and Sebastian Blanco will have the advantage in terms of speed against United right-back Sean Franklin. If they can create opportunities on the outside for Portland that should free up some space for midfielder Diego Valeri and forward Darren Mattocks. Without Fanendo Adi, who is still out with a hamstring injury, look for Mattocks to play a key role in terms of set pieces and crosses into the box.
On defense the Timbers are going to have to find a way to limit Acosta’s influence in their defensive third. The Argentine is at his most dangerous when he makes diagonal runs into the box where he normally attracts 1-2 defenders. That normally opens up chances for D.C.’s forwards, most prominently Patrick Mullins who has score five goals in the past month. Diego Chara will need to mark Acosta closely if Portland have any designs on walking away with three points.
While it may seem like Portland should make short work of United it may not be that easy. With jobs on the line and a bit of a chip on their should D.C. have shown over the past few weeks that they are not planning their vacations just yet. Portland have to press D.C. early and often otherwise they may find themselves coming up short again.