Timbers have edge but drop off could be steep Sunday

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by Matt Hoffman @mhoff

So what’s at stake on Sunday?

With as many as six starters missing on Sunday, Portland is banking on the team’s improved depth will take the team past Houston, setting up a date with Seattle for Portland’s third Western Conference Finals in five years.

Sunday’s match is essentially a knockout game, but with the pesky exception that any draw above 0-0 will see Houston advance.

Portland can boast that it is only the second visiting side in 2107 to leave BBVA Compass Stadium with a clean sheet. That accolade will mean little with anything short of a win. Meaning? Portland must score. Portland needs to score. Only once did Houston fail to score in back-to-back games and I’m of the mind that this had more to do with long layoff and the damage of Hurricane Harvey than anything.

Who has the advantage on Sunday?

Portland. An object in motion tends to stay in motion. The Timbers have a six-game winning streak at the friendly environs of Providence Park. The Timbers have a five-game undefeated streak at Providence Park alive in the against the Dynamo. We start to see the relevence of the stats break down when you understand the Dynamo’s lone win came in the first meeting between the clubs in when John Spencer was coaching Portland in 2011.

“We have the best environment I think in Major League Soccer with our supporters and how loud they are and passionate,” Caleb Porter said in his mid-week presser. “That certainly fuels our group and for the opponent, I think that’s pretty intimidating.”

How bad is the injury situation?

It’s bad. We won’t know the full extent until the lineups are released before match start. Diego Chara’s out. David Guzman has a sprained knee. Darlington Nagbe has a leg issue. Sebastian Blanco is recovering from second-degree burns on his foot. Fanendo Adi continues to be inactive and has missed so much match time that him returning to form might simply not be possible.

Each is concerning but the most damning may be the injury to Larrys Mabiala. The right center back position has not been so aptly held since Nat Borchers injury early last season. Mabiala came late to Portland after his club refused with part with him as they were in a relegation battle. Mabiala was rushed in probably before he was ready because the team was struggling to find players to fill holes in he lineup.

Roy Miller has played exceptionally well but plugging him at center back means that there’s no safety net should Vytas go down and it is far too late for the team to try to switch to a 3-man backline.

That does not, however, rule out the possibility of playing a very lopsided attack. The departure of AJ DeLagarza created a gravitational pull that drew the Timbers far out towards the left hand side. That left plenty of room for Alvas Powell and Dairon Asprilla to play in 1-v-1 situations. Both players have been excellent in the last handful of games. I’m chalking up any shortfalls on their behalf due to 70% field conditions, 25% the age-defying DaMarcus Beasley and 5% just plain bad luck.

X-factor

Houston is littered with offensive talent and a very good attacking coach in Wilmer Cabrera. Eric Alexander is a player that many in the Timbers community wished they got to know better. He had a cup of joe with Portland before being jettisoned to the New York Red Bulls. Alexander missed most of the season with a MCL injury but has returned to play a role in each of the Dynamo’s two playoff matches. Playing a defensive midfielder role, Alexander will be the person springing his team’s vaunted counter attack. Effectively holding the ball around Alexander and preventing turnovers will nullify his impact and give Portland a very solid edge to stand upon Saturday.

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