Life is often about perspective. The Portland Timbers are the last-placed team in MLS's Western Conference. Short rest, injuries, cross-country flights, consecutive turf games and an offense that has produced 1 (one) shot on goal in 180 minutes aside, D.C. United should be winning this game. The Timbers won't have Diego Valeri, whose early-season absence due to injury made it clear how heavily PTFC leans on him.
Or: The Portland Timbers, in the East, would be tied for 5th place. They have a better defensive record than most teams in the league, and Fanendo Adi has more goals than anyone on United's roster. They're about to get their team captain Will Johnson back, and Caleb Porter has been more pragmatic than in years past. Even after losing Valeri to injury, this is a team that can still call on a diverse array of offensive players for this mid-week game.
Despite the temptation to turn this into a "can this supposedly good team wipe the floor with this trash team?" narrative - remember, in MLS the distance between good and trash is never as far as it seems - the fact is that the Timbers are a decent team hosting what appears to be a half-strength United. This is going to be a tough one.
Guessing the Portland lineup requires figuring out how much they want to rest up for the weekend. Like United, the Timbers are playing a conference game Saturday. If anything, that game against Colorado - the team they're tied for last in the West with - is more important to Portland's season than tonight's game with United is. A loss against the Rapids could potentially leave the Timbers 4-6 points adrift of the entire conference depending on results elsewhere in the next four days. That might not sound like much, but historically in MLS teams don't get into the playoffs from that sort of position.
Let's start with the most likely formation:
This 4231 is Portland's normal lineup, but they haven't exclusively played it in 2015. With the Colorado game in mind, certain players will need a rest. Adam Larsen Kwarasey seems safe in goal, and while I think Porter would like to rest Alvas Powell at right back there just aren't many possible candidates for the job. Jack Jewsbury could do it, but he needs a rest himself. If Porter gets desperate, he could give Taylor Peay a start, but that seems doubtful.
My guess is that Liam Ridgewell will definitely start, but I'm not 100% sure about who will partner him. Nat Borchers, at 34, can't just play every game forever. On the other and, Norberto Paparatto has been a sieve since coming to MLS, so Porter's got a tricky choice to make here. If Paparatto does get a start, United needs to pick on him mercilessly.
Left back is also a tough spot, because Jorge Villafana has to cover a lot of ground overlapping. He needs a break, but Porter has not given Brazilian newcomer Jeanderson much time at all. Given what he likely knows about United's bedraggled attack, this might be the best chance to make this sort of move.
In the midfield, I suspect that Diego Chara will not be rested in part because I also think that this game will be used for Johnson's return. Porter has said that - due to the amount of time Johnson was out, as well as the severity of his injury - he only intends to use Johnson in one of Portland's two games this week. Johnson is a popular player in the stands at Providence Park, and I think Porter would rather use him at home than in Colorado on Saturday. As such, Chara would stay in the lineup to provide Johnson with his best possible partner (easing his transition back into the rigors of MLS).
Further forward, Darlington Nagbe will probably have to shift back into the middle due to Valeri's injury. That's not great for Portland, because Nagbe is uncomfortable with having to be "the man." He's still clearly a great talent, but his unshakable urge to involve his teammates - even when he should take the game by the scruff of the neck - might be a boon for United. Nagbe's move inside could be preempted by Gaston Fernandez playing as a #10, but he's never really delivered in that role since arriving in MLS.
As such, I think Porter would prefer to play Nagbe centrally and give a start on the right wing to young Colombian Dairon Asprilla. Asprilla plays a more to-the-point game than Nagbe does as a winger, using his speed to threaten either on the dribble or on fairly basic runs into the channel.
That directness might help a bit, because Porter may be tempted to rest a familiar face to United fans. Rodney Wallace is usually the faster, more physical winger for the Timbers, but with Asprilla likely coming in Porter won't lose too much in that department. If Wallace is rested, look for Ghanaian winger Ishmael Yartey (or possibly Michael Nanchoff?) to step in.
Up front, Adi is first-choice but being a lone target man is a demanding job. It could be that Maximiliano Urruti gets the start instead, and that would change PTFC quite a bit. Adi is much more of a physical force, while Urruti is more of a pest who isn't going to play with his back to goal.
Of course, Porter could also go with a standard 442, in which Nagbe would be on the right and any of the left wing candidates I mentioned above (plus Asprilla) could be in line to play on the other side. A 442 would boost the chances that Fernandez starts as the second forward as well.
Off the bench, pretty much anyone I mentioned here could possibly sub in if they don't start. I'd also look for someone like George Fochive to sub on for Johnson, who is likely not 90 minutes fit just yet. Porter will almost certainly make a substitution up front, and the last move will probably be on the wings. However, the Timbers have repeatedly pulled a defender while trying to change results late in games. Against TFC last week, Porter referred to his late-game formation as a 334. At home and desperately needing three points, do not be shocked if we see a back three if United is in the lead (or, for that matter, if they're just hanging on for a draw).