If, after DC United went to Oregon and beat the Portland Timbers 3-2 back in late May, you had told me that this game would have playoff implications for both teams, I'd have believed you (though I'd have been a little surprised that Portland was close enough to still have realistic hopes). However, the scenario in my mind would have been that United would be sealing the deal on a playoff spot with any result, while Portland would be coming in needing a win to stay alive.
I suppose my prediction wouldn't have been that far off, but the devil is in the details. By virtue of a disastrous string of four losses at the worst time, DC is on the brink of playoff elimination tonight. Anything other than a win will mean a fourth straight year without a playoff spot (which would be the longest such spell in club history). Even if DC does win, we'll also need help tomorrow night from Philadelphia. And then we'll have to win again Saturday, over a Sporting Kansas City side that is my current pick to make the MLS Cup final out of the east. If New York ties the Union tomorrow, we'll also have had to beat Portland and the Sporks by a combined 7 goals (or even 8, if NY-Philly is a high-scoring draw). We're the team that needs a miracle, not Portland.
This may be the hardest thing I've ever had to write. It's not because John Spencer's Timbers are a complicated team; in fact, they stick to a relatively simple formula, which is probably a good idea given their youth. It's because it's taken that long to get myself ready to start thinking about DC United again after the horror of this past weekend.
So, how do we avoid more misery?
Spencer has had a more or less settled team in recent weeks, thanks to Kenny Cooper's return to form, but injuries from their bruising 2-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo have thrown those plans off slightly:
The injuries are to right midfielder Sal Zizzo and rookie attacker Darlington Nagbe, who had recently been trading off the starting role alongside Cooper with Jorge Perlaza. Zizzo's absence would have been filled by Nagbe; with both players gone, I am expecting former United player Rodney Wallace to come in at left midfield, with Kalif Alhassan moving to the right. With Spencer talking about the need to be tougher and more physical, Wallace makes more sense than the less aggressive Eric Alexander. However, if Spencer does go for the mulleted former FC Dallas midfielder, Alexander will probably play on the right with Alhassan on the left (though both players would probably swap wings from time to time during the game). Intriguingly, Alexander is the bigger player, but prefers to focus on the technical side of the game. As we know from his time here, Wallace is someone you'd turn to if you felt you needed additional bite.
Elsewhere, things are stable. Up front, Cooper and Perlaza provide a dynamic that looks like a classic - a big target man and a speedster - but doesn't actually play like it. Cooper, perhaps to the chagrin of every coach he's ever had, prefers to drift wide and function as a creative player rather than using his powerful frame to battle defenders. Both players like to drop underneath from time to time, and that will dictate how a given attack is likely to play out. If Cooper stays high and Perlaza goes back to support the midfield, look for a slower build-up. If Cooper drops and Perlaza stays, however, the Timbers will likely play an early ball trying to make use of their Colombian striker's speed.
The real class of the Portland squad, however, is their central midfield tandem of Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara. Whenever you have a player whose name won't drop out of the MVP conversation (Jewsbury) and a guy that just appeared for Colombia in a World Cup qualifier (Chara), you probably have a strong central midfield by MLS standards. Jewsbury is an all-action kind of player; we'll see him breaking up plays defensively, making himself available for passes, trying to create chances, and bursting forward to have looks at goal. Dealing with Jewsbury will be a team task rather than one particular person's job, though Clyde Simms will probably be running into him most often. Jewsbury is a threat from long range (especially in the wet conditions we'll be seeing) and has been very good serving in free kicks, though it is worth noting that his service in recent weeks hasn't been Brad Davis Lite like it was during the first half of the season.
Portland will prefer to play direct soccer for the most part, though Chara sometimes brings a pause to the game when he feels it necessary. Still, Spencer's background in Scottish and English soccer, and his time with the always-direct Dynamo, are clear when one watches the Timbers. United's back four will be put under pressure in this game, because Portland likes to get up the field in a hurry.
The loss of Nagbe and Zizzo will hurt in that department, as both are good at the 1v1 situations that come up on the wing when you play direct, but long balls and set pieces have both been big problems for United all season long. If DC is going to win this game, the entire team will have to be ready to cope with the situation. It won't be so much about the intricacy of Portland's attacking movements as it will be the sheer quantity of them. Both teams are desperate, both play fairly similarly, and it'll be rainy. If you asked me to pick one word to describe how tonight will play out, I'd choose "frenetic."
Going forward, United will find a Timbers defense that isn't much better than ours is. Lovel Palmer has never looked like a real right back to me, and can lose his head (meaning both temper problems and momentary lapses in concentration). Eric Brunner is a decent enough center back, as is Futty Danso, but you get the sense that both players desperately need a more experienced presence alongside them (sound familiar?). Brunner is probably the guy United can pick on tonight, but only if we keep the ball on the ground and expose his lack of agility. If DC starts playing in the air too often, Brunner and Danso are going to have an easy day due to their huge size advantage.
In a lot of ways, Portland is a similar team to us. They can beat anyone in MLS on their day, but all too often end up losing focus at the worst time. Our loss to Chicago was obviously disheartening, but Portland's loss to Houston was not too far off of that mark. The Dynamo showed up in Portland's stadium and bullied them all game long. 90 minutes of getting pushed around can be psychologically damaging, and it wouldn't surprise me if it takes both clubs 20-30 minutes to recover some collective belief in each other.
Bottom line: These are two evenly-matched teams that play similar styles, have similarly emotional coaches, and have a desperate need for a win. That opening period of the game might end up being the key. If United can gather themselves first and get after Portland, it will both speed up our psychological healing while throwing the Timbers off in the same department. If neither team can seize this one in the fragile opening stages, then my guess is that the team that can simply keep the major mistakes down - both teams are prone to howlers - will emerge with the points.