The Portland Timbers only have 29 points, despite the fact that the 2012 regular season is nearly done. D.C. United surpassed that meager total all the way back in June (specifically with the first 1-0 win at Philadelphia). Only Chivas USA and Toronto FC have done worse this season.
In a vacuum, tonight's game sound like a gimme. United is a playoff contender on a three-game winning streak. A win would tie us for second place in the East . MLS's moronic goals scored tiebreaker would see us into 3rd place at worst thanks to Chicago's meek 2-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City last night. The Timbers, meanwhile, haven't won a game in the month of September and are more focused on the Cascadia Cup games they have coming up than facing the Black-and-Red.
There's a reason we don't figure out games on paper. The Timbers may have a truly poor record, but the problem is mostly the fact that they're among MLS's worst-ever road teams. Portland is winless away from JELD-WEN!!!!!!one?! ALL CAPS FOREVER FIELD, posting a deplorable 0W-4D-11L record. By contrast, in 2010 - the worst-ever United team, mind you - we won three times away, including a 3-2 victory in Oregon.
So Portland is pretty bad, but total of 4 points away means that they've taken 25 points from their home games (a record of 7W-4D-4L). The list of teams that have gone to Jeld-Wen and lost includes the San Jose Earthquakes, Sporting Kansas City, the Chicago Fire, and the Seattle Sounders. In other words, the top two teams in either MLS conference. The combination of Portland's turf surface, the postage stamp field dimensions - sorry Timbers fans, but 110 by 70 was laughable for my high school team, much less professional soccer - and the Timbers Army make Jeld-Wen a difficult place for any team to get a result.
Formation-wise, Portland has mostly preferred a 4231 since Gavin Wilkinson became interim head coach. However, their preferred sub when behind has been to withdraw a defensive midfielder for a forward and move to a 4132. United could see either, but more than likely will see the 4231 to start:
Most of the question marks come from the status of Diego Chara, who is questionable with an adductor strain. Portland is not sure whether to play him or not due to his adductor strain and Jack Jewsbury's status (if he's booked against United, he'll be suspended for their upcoming game against the Seattle Sounders). If Chara gets a start, he'll force Wilkinson to choose between Steven Smith - once of Scotland's Glasgow Rangers - or local product and former United player Rodney Wallace at left back.
That said, the smart money is on Chara being held out, which means Wallace will play an all-action midfield role rather similar to the one he sometimes had here under Tom Soehn. Wallace may not be the steadiest player in terms of maintaining rhythm, but on the small turf field at Jeld-Wen it doesn't matter that much. Dealing with the energy and physicality of that midfield duo will be more important.
In goal, there's a possibility that Donovan Ricketts will return early from a shoulder injury. Joe Bendik has started while the big Jamaican has been out, but New Zealand international Jake Gleeson was at one point the preferred back-up (only to have a hand injury days after Ricketts got hurt). Bendik has done well enough to get another start, but Ricketts and Gleeson are both possibilities.
Kosuke Kimura is also a question mark at right back, because he has yet to appear comfortable with Portland's center backs since coming over from Colorado. Kimura has reasonable speed and is as determined as they come, but his spacing can be poor and the Timbers back four is shaky as is. Lovel Palmer has been injured of late, but is currently "probable" and could easily displace Kimura if Wilkinson wants a more conservative option at right back.
The final question mark is up front, where Danny Mwanga and Bright Dike have both done fairly well recently. DP signing Kris Boyd has been a disappointment, and is now out with an injury that will probably sideline him for the rest of 2012. Dike is the more athletic, physically imposing presence, while Mwanga offers more skill. Both struggle with consistency, however, and in either case United should be more concerned with the attacking trio coming from underneath.
If Wilkinson does opt for the 4132, look for Mwanga and Dike up top, with Jewsbury in the deep role and one of either Wallace or Smith at left back. That would expose the weak Portland central defense, so I'd also look for Palmer to start if that's the way the unpopular GM/interim coach wants to go.
Going forward, Portland would prefer to keep possession but are far more dangerous playing as a counter-attacking team. Their attacking midfield trio has tons of speed, and frankly no one in the Timbers midfield has the combination of vision, soccer IQ, and touch to pull off being a possession team. If United can keep Portland playing the soccer they aspire to rather than the soccer they're built for - that is to say, congest the midfield and slow any attempted counters down - then the Black-and-Red will be in control.
Stopping those counters will be a problem, though. Sal Zizzo has finally found the form down the right wing that he has threatened to for his entire career, so Chris Korb will need to be strong. If Zizzo does manage to get in some crosses, Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic need to be alert to win the header or, at the very least, block off the run of whoever starts at forward.
That said, the biggest threat is probably Franck Songo'o cutting in from the left. Songo'o has tremendous close control and loves to charge inside with the ball at his feet in an attempt to unsettle defenses. Dealing with Songo'o will require both physical defending (to take the dribble off the table) and being able to manage handing players off without leaving any gaps. Given the noise at Jeld-Wen Field, that second part is easier said than done, and requires a lot from the United central midfield.
The turf field and small dimensions pose a problem for every visiting team, but United will have to maintain at least a semblance of a possession game. Portland are comfortable playing more of a pinball kind of game, so any instance in which DC has the ball and the Timbers are chasing it around is probably a good sign. Slowing things down will help take the crowd out of the game, and will help mitigate the speed Portland will have on the field. This is one of the few times United will not have a marked advantage in terms of pace (particularly if our forwards are Lionard Pajoy and Maicon Santos, or if Branko Boskovic is starting).
Slowing the game down can't really include lots of fouls. While Portland can no longer call on Jewsbury's 2011 "every freekick is good" form, they're still a big, aggressive team that doesn't create that often in the run of play. As a result, the nimble trio of Zizzo, Darlington Nagbe, and Songo'o are as much of a threat when they create free kicks as they are in the run of play. Portland will get their set piece chances - it's inevitable on such a small field - but keeping the number of times they can put the ball into the box low will be vital.
When United attacks, we should be able to create real chances without too much effort. Jewsbury is not a natural defensive midfielder, and Portland's back four may be the weakest in MLS once you set TFC aside. The center back pairing of Hanyer Mosquera and David Horst are both prone to huge mistakes, and neither has much speed (particularly Horst, who is more of a throwback to 1970s England in terms of being strong, slow, and totally uncomfortable with the ball).
Every channel is in play, and it might be worthwhile to move Chris Pontius up to forward to exploit Portland's lack of speed down the middle (not to mention the fact that he'd have more of an angle to attack every defender, rather than just Kimura or Mosquera if he plays left midfield).
Furthermore, Portland doesn't kill possession with very intelligent play; it's all about effort. If United can keep the ball moving, we'll be able to slice through the Timbers' midfield while tiring them out. Zizzo can run forever, but both Nagbe and Songo'o would rather not have to defend, and sharp teams can eventually take advantage of the combination of a weak back four and a midfield only built to go forward.
Finally, there's the fact that Portland's GK on the day will be an issue. Ricketts is injury-prone (and injured anyway), and can be guilty of some huge mistakes. Bendik looked unsure of himself when called to come off his line, so crosses (make that driven crosses, as high balls are just heading practice for guys like Horst) should cause problems if DC players are willing to make the runs off the ball. Gleeson has had numerous injuries as well, so I would imagine his timing and sharpness are not 100%.
Despite this litany of weaknesses, United is likely to see the best of Portland rather than the worst. Wilkinson has said that he is judging performances against DC as part of his process in selecting the team for the game against Seattle, which around Jeld-Wen is essentially an MLS Cup final. The Timbers have far more experience on turf as well; by contrast, United's last game on plastic was back in April (2-1 win over New England).
That said, the narrow field might play into the grinding, pick-your-moment style we've seen from Olsen's Army of late. It affords the opportunity to make the game a midfield battle, which in turn will make the crowd less of a factor. United has the more solid defense, the smarter team, and the better attackers. Turning those advantages into a victory is well within reach, but nothing is a given in the Rose City.