On Saturday, Columbus Crew SC will get a rare visit from the Portland Timbers at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus. With just a month remaining in the regular season, both sides have a lot riding on results, though for different reasons.
Points of any kind for the Black & Gold will clinch a playoff spot (in reality, they can clinch as long as Orlando City doesn't win on Friday night), and a play-in bye and home-field advantage in the postseason is still very much an option. It's even still mathematically possible to win the Eastern Conference and the Supporter's Shield (but let's not get too carried away).
The Timbers, meanwhile, are fighting for their lives in a mosh pit of a Western Conference and a few teams breathing down their neck for the final playoff spot.
Who will want it more come Saturday night?
This is a tricky matchup for Crew SC, with reasons to be both positive as well as concerned. Here's a quick look at why that is, and some key aspects of this weekend's contest.
You'd think the Timbers would have learned from last year — don't let things go down to the wire. Yet here they are again, and for a second straight season their playoff hopes likely going down to the last week or two. Portland currently occupies the final postseason spot in the Western Conference and it's holding off all comers by the skin of its teeth, with three teams trailing in the standings by three points or less. That means this is a desperate team coming to Columbus on Saturday.
The good news for Crew SC is that although it is a desperate team, it is also a team with some issues — there is a reason Portland is where it is right now. The problem for the Timbers is two-fold: they have been terrible on the road, and there are major goal-scoring struggles.
I say goal-scoring, rather than attacking, because this team has attacking firepower. They have threats. Darlington Nagbe (7.46 xG+xA) is ninth in the league with 53 key passes. Diego Valeri (9.20 xG+xA) is 12th with 49 key passes. Fernando Adi is 10-goal target man up top and the fullbacks — Jorge Villafana and Alvas Powell — get involved in the attack. The addition of Lucas Melano has added another attacker who has gotten into some dangerous spots (he actually leads the team in shots per 90 minutes) but fits the Portland MO of chance-misser.
The problem is not in creation — the Timbers actually lead MLS with 14.3 shots per game — but in finishing. Adi has been in poor form, scoring just two goals since July sixth. Behind him, the next-highest goal scorer has three (and go by names like Jack Jewsbury and Nat Borchers, not exactly prolific attackers). In fact, the folks at American Soccer Analysis have summed up Portland's problems in a nifty stat called PDO — an indicator of finishing rate plus save percentage that basically shows how well a team is capitalizing on its own chances combined with how well it's stopping the other team's chances. The Timbers are last in the Western Conference in PDO, and only two teams in all of MLS have a lower number — Philadelphia and Chicago.
That speaks for itself and explains exactly why Portland is fighting for its life — goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey hasn't been a good enough shot-stopper to make up for major finishing woes on the other side of the field.
And then there is the road record — Portland has notched just 14 of a possible 42 points on the road this season.
For all its issues, Portland still has the talent to put it together on any given day, one would think. More importantly, it's about a matchup with a Black & Gold system that causes fans to sweat for 90 minutes against any team with any semblance of attacking presence.
The Timbers can play with the ball (they're right in the middle of the league from a possession standpoint), but one adjustment they've made is to attack a bit more on the counter, and and they can attack with pace.
There's not really a timekeeper in the midfield. It's all about the destroying duo of Will Johnson and Diego Chara and getting the ball played either to Valeri or the wing to attack quickly. Not to mention that while Kwarasey may have some shortcomings, distribution is not one of them, and he can get the ball at the feet of his teammates down field in a hurry.
Against a Columbus system that often gets the fullbacks up field and a back line that has been disjointed too often, don't discount the threat of what the Timbers could do in transition.
Keys for Crew SC
Luckily for Columbus, it has plenty on the line too — a distant shot at the Supporter's Shield/conference title, but more importantly a play-in bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Those are very important factors in playoff success, and it should have the Black & Gold engaged from the start. They need to be.
Tony Tchani also needs to be willing to add to the attack the way he was last week against D.C. United. Against New York Red Bulls, Johnson and Chara had a poor effort in the defensive midfield for Portland, and there was room 20-30 yards from goal. Even if the effort isn't has horrific as it was on Felipe Martins goal on Sunday, there could still be an opportunity to exploit that area. (Don't be surprised to see George Fochive starting in place of one of those D-mids. He's been solid all year, if less experienced)
It's not a one-week issue. Johnson hasn't been the same since his injury and Chara has been hit or miss. It's a little surprising when you think about where those two would have stood as a D-mid pairing in MLS not long ago, but it's the current reality. Here's Chara getting run around earlier this summer against Dallas (while paired with Jewsbury).
If Tchani can come into their space with trailing runs, he'll force them to prove they're ready to perform at a higher level than they did last week, and, again, give the defense something else to think about.
It seems fruitless to hope that Columbus will play a flawless defensive game at this point. The question will be whether Gaston Sauro is ready to get the start, and if he gets the call, he has to be on the same page as Parkhurst. This Timber team will have scoring opportunities, and the defense has to stay compact and weather the storms. It's not the time for guys to stand around looking at each other.
This is a Portland side with two major strikes against it — it tends to start slowly and it doesn't get results on the road. If Crew SC can hit early, it can more likely play this game on its own terms.