D.C. United faces another unfamiliar opponent on Saturday. With a cross-country flight to the Pacific Northwest, the Portland Timbers are next up on our schedule, continuing the happy trend of facing weak opponents towards the end of the regular season. To get a closer look at the Timbers, we exchanged questions with SB Nation's Timbers blog Stumptown Footy.
B&RU: The Timbers have had a few ups, but mostly downs this year. Coming off a stretch of three-straight games against the top teams in the West in which Portland only suffered one loss, are there any reasons to be encouraged heading into next year?
SF: I think there are plenty of reasons for Portland Timbers fans to be encouraged heading into the 2013 season, primarily because of the new head coach Caleb Porter and the sort of pedigree that he brings with him. While he might have been hamstrung by his U-23 defeat in the Olympic qualifying stage, he's still a very tactically minded coach who is able to get a lot out of his young players. It's the reason why Akron has been so good since he took over. Adding to the fact that he's reuniting with Darlington Nagbe, former Akron super star, makes the combination seem like something out of a dream.
Beyond the head coach, however, Timbers fans can just generally look forward to an exciting off season. Nobody knows exactly what's going to happen, but we all know a huge shake up is coming. So it'll be very interesting to see who stays and who goes. There's not a whole lot more space left between the Timbers and rock bottom and I believe most Portland fans will believe that next year will be a rebound of sorts. How much of a rebound? That remains the question.
The Timbers are one of only two teams in the league to have allowed over 50 goals this season. Is the defense still a significant concern for Portland, or have they made strides to correct it?
Absolutely. Defense has never been the Timbers strong point since joining the league and, honestly, it's getting a little exhausting trying to keep making excuses for them. Fact is, the current backline doesn't work. Hanyer Mosquera has his moments where he's brilliant at defending, but he also makes some bone headed moves. Kosuke Kimura is simply not a good fit for the Timbers, which is a shame to say because he has the type of heart Portland fans love. David Horst is young and often tracks far too much offensively leaving Mosqo to defend in a 3-5-2 formation. Steven Smith is really the only consistent player over the last month or two, but he hasn't been consistent all year long either.
I think we'll see some serious moves defensively over the off season. What the Timbers need is a veteran, proven MLS defender who knows how to handle the type of offensive players the league produces. They don't currently have that and it's beginning to show.
As a fan of the team that tried but failed to reel him in two years ago for our own coaching vacancy, I'm curious what you think Caleb Porter will bring to Portland next season. Who will he keep? What will he change?
It's a little challenging to say exactly what Porter will bring to the Timbers next year. We all know that he's keen on both a tactical passing sort of play as well as an emphasis on young players. In fact the Timbers are widening their field to 74 yards (from 70) specifically for Porter's style, which will certainly be interesting (it'll also be nice not to hear quite so much complaining from visiting coaches).
I think as Porter comes in he'll definitely make the focus around his former star player Darlington Nagbe. In fact, Nagbe playing for Portland could be one of the big reasons why he applied, and the Timbers hired him. He'll probably focus on other young players such as Danny Mwanga, Sebastian Rincon, Jose Adolfo Valencia, and Kalif Alhassan as the future play makers of the team. Some veterans will undoubtedly stick around: Jack Jewsbury, Diego Chara and Steven Smith immediately jump to mind, perhaps Hanyer Mosquera as well. The rest will be fighting for their job this off season.
Don't be surprised to see a mass exodus of players this off season. The Timbers have a lot of dead weight and Porter will be looking to place players that know and understand his game rather than working with what the current players already know.
My answers to Stumptown Footy's questions are below:
SF: After missing the play offs each year since 2007, how important is it that DC United make it this year? What would the fall out be if they, miraculously at this point, failed to make it? Is there hope that this is a squad that can go all the way and win MLS Cup?
B&RU: Ben Olsen set a goal for this team at the beginning of the season: playoffs. The 2012 season has been a wild and entertaining ride, and it would be hugely disappointing to miss out at this point. But I don't think there would actually be much fallout. Its not like Olsen is going anywhere. If a disaster was to happen (I don't even feel all that comfortable accepting this as a possibility), management would just blame it on the Dwayne De Rosario injury and move on to next year.
It's been almost a year since the Portland Timbers played against DC United in a humdrum 1-1 draw... what's changed with the team since then? Where does the threat come from?
Dude, do you remember that match? It was the second-to-last match of the 2011 season and both teams were on the fringe of elimination from the playoffs. The entire final 20 minutes of the match consisted of both teams throwing everything forward, defending be damned. I still have no idea how neither of them scored.
Plenty has changed since that day. In the offseason, Olsen trimmed every bit of fat he could find off the roster, cutting the four longest tenured United players, among others, and replacing them with more bite. The roster this year is much deeper, which was kind of necessary given our injury situation. The team is also much more versatile, with the dynamic Chris Pontius leading the way with 11 goals and four assists. Pontius has really stepped up his game this season. He can create his own chances, finish them with speed and accuracy, and has the awareness and touch to set up his teammates as well.
Dwayne De Rosario is OUT. How does this affect the game? How much of an impact did he have on field in previous games?
Many of us actually thought that De Rosario's injury (an MCL sprain suffered during his team with the Canadian National Team) would be the curtain call on our playoff hopes for this season. But the team is 3-0-0 so far without him. Of course the schedule has been favorable - the Philadelphia Union, New England Revolution, and Chivas USA aren't exactly world beaters - this team has still beaten everyone that shows up to play them. With DeRo, there was always the possibility that he'd pull something out of his socks to earn United a result even when if the team wasn't playing great. Without DeRo, there is no margin for error. United must be compact and succinct defensively and finish its chances in the box.
Who are one or two DC United players who make a huge impact on the game, but might not be household names to Timbers fans? What kind of impact do they make?
I'm guessing you've already heard of Andy Najar, but you might not notice him upon a brief glance at our team stats, given that Najar hasn't scored a goal yet for United this year. What you might not know about Najar is that, despite his attacking flare, he's now United's starting right back. He may be undersized, but Najar has good positional awareness and he's an excellent one-on-one defender. D.C. United enjoys attacking down the wings with aggressive play from the fullbacks, so look for Andy Najar to make several overlapping runs around Rookie Of The Year candidate Nick DeLeon on the right flank throughout the match.
You may also want to take note of Lionard Pajoy. Since coming over from the Union last month, Pajoy has established himself as a regular starter and the team's top ball-winner at the top of the formation. Pajoy has played a part in three of United's last four goals, but has also made several mistakes on the ball that's made him an unexplainably unpopular player amongst the United fanbase.