First, a Recap!
Last week, the Timbers needed a break. And they got it.
Facing the difficult task of having to rebound from a bad loss on a baseball diamond 3,000 miles from home, Caleb Porter's men put in a solid team performance and escaped Yankee Stadium with three points.
The day began inauspiciously with the news that Rodney Wallace would not even make the bench due to a knee injury, later confirmed by Porter to be an MCL strain. In fact, the Timbers did not have enough healthy bodies available to field a full 18-man roster. The negative was quickly turned into a positive on the news that the newly-acquired Ishmael Yartey would be handed his debut in Wallace’s place. The 25-year old Ghanaian, on loan from Swiss team FC Sion, did not disappoint.
Starting on the right wing of the 4-2-3-1, Yartey challenged NYC's defense, opening up space for Fanendo Adi to make dangerous runs into the penalty area. Coupled with Dairon Asprilla's pace and Darlington Nagbe's man of the match-worthy performance, the Timbers' front-4 looked as dangerous as they ever have. Yartey’s late replacement, Gaston Fernandez, set up Asprilla's game winner.
The 1-0 final score could have easily been 3-2. Maybe a year or two ago, it would have been, but this team is different from any we have seen in four years.
So, where do we stand?
It took 13 games for Portland to record their first shutout in 2014. They have 3 in 7 this year. The Timbers are 5 points ahead of last year's pace, and they didn't accumulate 9 points until May 11th.
The cavalcade of good news continues with word that Will Johnson and Diego Valeri are back in full training. The captain is set to play for T2 this weekend in Arizona, his first meaningful minutes since fracturing his tibia and fibula in Toronto on September 27. El Maestro is going to be reintegrated as a sub, and while Porter is noncommittal on Valeri's timeline to regain his starting spot, he could be available off the bench on Sunday.
Who doesn't want to see him trot on late and curl in a game winning free kick! It's the stuff derby lore is made of, and there is hardly a bigger or better stage than the big Flounder Tank up north.
The Western Conference is dog-eat-dog, we all knew that coming in. Pundits have been locked on to picking the same two teams to finish atop the West since the Timbers joined MLS: the Galaxy and Sunday's fishy opponent. The standings reflect otherwise. Every team, save for 7th place RSL, has 2 or more losses. Sigi Schmid's 4th place fish enter the weekend with 10 points, perched precariously above five teams with 9.
What Sigi's bunch have going for them is explosive offensive capability. Their 4-3-3 formation has produced 9 goals, good for second-most in the league. However, they have all been scored by only 3 players. Top heavy much?
Poking aside, Obafemi Martins is one of the most dangerous strikers in the league. The Timbers have excelled at shutting down star strikers, but if Martins is neutralized, Lamar Neagle and USMNT “feel queasy rooting for him” poster boy Clinton Drew Dempsey will be lurking. The former is a hot hand, coming off a two-goal performance in last week's win in Colorado. The latter is a perennial Timbers tormentor who bagged five goals against Portland last year alone.
The fish are flattest at the back. DeAndre Yedlin, who was sold to Tottenham Hotspur in the offseason, has not been replaced. The explosive former prodigy of one Caleb Porter at Akron brought pace and width to Sigi Schmid's team, opening up space for engine room midfielder Ozzie Alonso and playmaking winger Marco Pappa. His stand-in, former Bolton Wanderers fullback, Tyrone Mears, hasn't recorded an assist since week 1. Dylan Remick leads the back line with 4 completed crosses. Jack Jewsbury has 12.
The center of defense will be stretched thin as well on the news that 2014 Defender of the Year, Chad Marshall, was suspended for the match by the league’s disciplinary committee. Regular centerback Brad Evans will likely be partnered with Leo Gonzalez, whose last home start was a 3-2 loss to San Jose.
The numbers are, for all intents and purposes, close. It’s what you want to see going into a derby. The fishing village hold negligible advantages in goals scored (9 to 7) and points (10 to 9). Both clubs have three clean sheets, and while the Timbers have failed to score 3 times, Sigi's bunch have been blanked twice.
So, how do the Timbers unlock the fishy gates?
The key is Darlington Nagbe.
Portland's Golden Boy has finally emerged as the engaged, dynamic playmaker Timbers fans have hoped for. With two equally dangerous wide players around him and a true hold-up forward at the top of the 4-2-3-1, Portland brings an attack previously unseen in this matchup. Nagbe opened up space for teammates, created 4 official “chances”, and his 7 completed dribbles (a move in which a player runs with the ball at his feet past one or more defenders) in the second half at Yankee Stadium were more than any other player has completed this year. In a full game.
What he needs is for Fanendo Adi to finish his chances.
Defense is equally critical. Portland brings the stingiest, most solid back line they ever have to a fishing village derby, allowing 7 goals in 7 matches. By comparison, the 2014 Timbers had already let in 12 by this time. Stalwarts Ridgewell and Borchers are among the league leaders in clearances/blocks/interceptions, and have only accrued two total yellow cards (both to Ridgy). Alvas Powell is sixth in the league with 43 recoveries; Brad Evans leads the flounders with 24.
This Timbers group is nearly unrecognizable to the team that got pushed around for 10 goals in 3 games. Caleb’s high flying front 4, rock solid back line, and the intrigue of the possibility of a cameo from the Maestro himself makes for an absolutely fascinating derby.
1,500 traveling Timbers Army will be in full voice on Sunday. There's no need to stress the importance of this game.