The Chicago Fire enter this midweek portion of the Simple Invitational a bit weary and banged-up, and with plenty still to learn. Manager Frank Yallop said the team "looked a little leggy" in the tournament opener against Stabæk, which ended in a scoreless draw. Attackers Shaun Maloney and David Accam as well as right back Lovel Palmer limped off with cramps or injuries; only Accam's is expected to linger, but it's safe to say that we should see some serious squad rotation from both teams in this game.
Where that rotation will happen is anyone's guess. It's the preseason, so anything is possible; to wit:
Will the defense rotate? Jeff Larentowicz and Adaílton went all the way at centerback. Could we see Eric Gehrig or Matt Polster drop into the middle? Will Gehrig get a look at right back, or will we see unsigned draftee Kingsley Bryce? On the left, will Joevin Jones get a chance to build on a solid outing on Sunday, or will it be Greg Cochrane's turn?
What about the midfield? Polster looked commanding in a quarter-hour stint as a destroyer - could he start there? If so, who goes alongside him - Cocis and Stephens? Cocis and Alex? Alex and Stephens?
And who plays up top? Assuming Harry Shipp and Kennedy Igboananike are ready to play, who starts alongside them? The lack of true wing options (in the absence of Accam and Patrick Nyarko) implies more of a two-striker set; could we see Guly do Prado and Quincy Amarikwa from the start, with Igbo rested?
And how about the guys we haven't seen yet? Could new Homegrowns Patrick Doody and Collin Fernandez get some minutes here?
In other words, almost anything is possible and defensible. We're still learning how Yallop and his staff think about this team, and that's maybe the most valuable thing one can learn in these situations - do they believe in their improved depth? Or do they have a group of 14 or so they plan to ride to glory?
Portland's loss to Vancouver in the Simple Invitational opener followed a script which, under Caleb Porter, has become familiar to Timbers supporters: Control the ball and create the majority of the chances, then cough up a goal after a corner that just never got cleared. That the goal came from discarded former Portland defender Pa Modou Kah just exacerbates the frustration. But, hey - it's early.
The Timbers play an energetic, high-pressing 4-2-3-1 with Darlington Nagbe maturing into a role of chief string-puller in Diego Valeri's absence. Against Vancouver, Nagbe showed his growing comfort as a free-roaming creator, using his velvety first touch and elite quickness to wriggle into dangerous areas. What's different for Nagbe now is the increasing dependability of his final ball - formerly, defending against Nagbe was a matter of simply keeping one's feet and waiting for him to try something that didn't come off. Against the Whitecaps on Sunday, there was precious little of those failures.
Portland is hardly a one-man team going forward, though. Fanendo Adi is a classic target forward, albeit a very young one; his ability to win longer balls allows the Timbers' defenders a reliable outlet under pressure. Gaston Fernandez is clever at popping up in space to combine or get a shot on goal. And Rodney Wallace keeps the defense honest, staying wide to stretch the zone around the opponent's right back. Add team MVP Diego Valeri to the mix - Nagbe's superior once his knee heals - and new recruit Dairon Asprilla, and it's a formidable group.
The Timbers defense has been remade since last season. Liam Ridgewell, now healthy, sports the captain's armband; his passing over distance makes standing off the Portland defense a shaky proposition. Nat Borchers joins him in an all-beard-team centerback pairing, as the uncompromising RSL man was picked up in the Re-Entry Draft. On the right, Alvas Powell has taken over for the aging Jack Jewsbury, with Jorge "Sueño" Villafaña on the left.
The two-man midfield engine room is where Portland's troubles really lie. Diego Chara, always up for the battle, is there, although some of the buzzing snap seems to have left his all-action game. Chara's two primary partners-in-crime - Will Johnson and Ben Zemanski - are on the shelf with long-term knee injuries, meaning Porter must choose between experience (Jewsbury) or innocence (rookie Nick Besler) to partner him.
Off the bench, there is some quality. Maxi Urruti is the Portland version of Quincy Amarikwa, a swarming defensive forward who can occasionally pull of a beautiful finish. The aforementioned Asprilla is considered a rising star in Colombia, and could see considerable time as a pure winger in the Nyarko mode.
The key to playing against Portland in their intimate, raucous stadium is not to get swept up in the action. The Timbers will have moments where they spin webs of combination to break through into the attacking zone, but often those combinations occur deep enough that simple communication about marking renders them sterile. Their two-man engine room has lost a bit of horsepower, as well, which exposes the compromise one makes with attacking wingbacks: When the ball is turned over, their is likely to be space behind the defense on the flanks, or in front of it in the middle, as those two can't participate in buildup and cover every gap.
Everyone vs the refs: Portland go in hard in midfield, unashamedly, but also boast a lineup of slightly-built attackers who don't like contact. Keeping calm after hard fouls can be difficult, but will be necessary, as any retributive action will result in a hate-spiral which is difficult for a visitor to win.
Wallace or Asprilla vs. Fire fullbacks: Lovel Palmer and Joevin Jones looked fantastic against Stabæk, but the Timbers' attack is a beast of a different breed. Both Portland's creative players (Nagbe, Fernandez) and their burners (Wallace, Powell, Asprilla) thrive on positioning mistakes from opposition fullbacks. Jones and whoever plays for Palmer will need to look sharp.
The Fire's shape vs. Portland's shape: The Fire played an almost mirror-image midfield formation to the Timbers' in the tourney opener: A two-man engine room behind a purely attacking trio. Injuries will almost certainly change that shape. Could we see Chicago with a three-man triangle in midfield, hoping to swamp the beleaguered Timbers pair?
What I'll be watching for
Again, how do we handle pressure? Portland presents a very specific set of challenges - they'll press hard, always with an eye toward pouncing on a loose pass or touch and bursting into the attack. The Fire have wilted under this kind of pressure almost reliably in the last few years; showing they can keep the ball and work out of pressure would be a big step. Stabæk's organized hassling gave Chicago some difficulty, especially as the turf makes having a target for long balls - as opposed to lofting them into space - a necessity.
Who steps up to claim a starting spot? This game will present a chance or chances for guys outside the assumptive XI to stake a claim. Can Quincy show that he's an ideal foil for Igboananike? How about Stephens as part of a three-man midfield, or Polster? What does do Prado offer?
The bottom line
As this is not a competitive match, this will again be a chance to see the game like a scout. Any outcome is possible, given the amount of potential rotation each team could see.