Will the bye week help or hurt PTFC against Chicago?
By Philip Mitchell
Bye weeks can be beneficial for MLS teams. The season is long and difficult, and, while playing on the road, a chance to come home and rest for a week is a much deserved treat as a professional. However, it can also have its negatives. Teams can lose a bit of pace or get complacent if their opponent is not up to par (or may appear that way). For the Portland Timbers, their game this Saturday against the Chicago Fire falls under this post-bye week situation. However, there is a bit of an additional twist for them to figure out.
It is said that all good teams have to deal with the issue of depth when international teams begin to call. That has happened to Portland for not just this weekend, but for most of the month due to the various World Cup Qualifiers.
Their biggest loss during this time span will be goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, while he is away with the Jamaican National Team. Winner of multiple saves of the week, Ricketts will be replaced by backup Milos Kocic.Most recently played for PTFC in their US Open Cup win against Wilmington, Kocic has not seen any first team minutes for Portland during the regular season. No reason to be worried, Kocic has plenty of experience at the top flight in past seasons making 38 starts for Toronto FC and DC United since 2009.
Along with Ricketts, forward Ryan Johnson will be with the Jamaicans. Losing out on Johnson is not as much of a concern, but what they lose is someone who has shown to not back down from a challenge. In his place, it is safe to assume, will be Frederic Piquionne. Ask a Timber Fan about this and most will be pretty excited. His four goal performance against Wilmington almost completely cleared away the criticism he was facing from some within the Timbers Army. The veteran has shown to have built some chemistry with fellow attack minded players, such as Darlington Nagbe, Kalif Alhassan and Will Johnson. But these two are not the only ones.
One of the more worrisome aspects to this successful season for Coach Caleb Porter has been his back line. Losing Futty Danso for international duty has yet again stretched his line thin. The recent addition of Rauwshan Mckenzie has helped rebuild the depth, but he will most likely be a sub for the match. Expectations are to see Andrew Jean Baptiste (who has been a regular this season) paired up with Pa Modou Kah. Kah, a recent import from the Saudi first division, was featured in the 2-nil win over DC United. He looks strong, quick, not afraid to get physical, and is smart. I think his probable match up against Mike Magee will be quite a sight to see.
Finally, the last to not be a featured player will be Rodney Wallace. This could be a huge loss, or it may not. Rodney has had, so far, the season of his career. PTFC has succeeded because of his form but it’s also due to the fact that he has had quality service. It’s hard to tell what Porter will do because of his absence. Fans could expect to see Jose “El Trencito” Valencia, but Porter could also design an entirely new formation. That could be interesting, but it could be problematic as well. However, if the past 11 games unbeaten can be used as a source of history, Timber fans should not worry. With that said, what are they actually facing?
Last season, the Fire got hot late and went deep into the playoffs last season. What is a bit of a surprise has been their somewhat disappointing form this season. They have won two straight, when you add their USOC win mixed with the one this past weekend against DC. But, besides that, their defense has not really been that stellar. An overall goal differential of minus 8 is the opposite of PTFC’s plus 8. But if one was to look at the statistics, Portland has only allowed 3 fewer goals against. It’s goals for that is the huge difference. More specifically, Chicago is going to be facing the league’s best away goal scoring team. Go ahead Portland fans, read that sentence again (in all seriousness, Philly has just as many).
One of the surprises of Chicago’s season last year was Austin Berry, who won rookie of the year. His defensive skills have been more of a sophomore slump this season, but he is not someone to take lightly. He is smart and a very good defender. Next to him on the back line should be Jalil Anibaba, Gonzalo Sagares, and their other new acquisition from a trade with Philidelphia, Bakare Soumare. They will be a back line to reckon, with but what matters more for them against Portland will be pace. If the Timbers can keep a fast pace and play their short passing game, they have shown they will be challenged, and possibly broken, by Porter’s sophisticated attack scheme.
In the mid, Chicago has experience. Patrick Nyarko was solid last season. His box-to-box presence was one of the under the radar performances in the league. On the attack, he can punish a defender who gets complacent. He is fast and creative. He and Mike Magee should be a tandem to watch out for.
Jeff Larentowicz has been a workhorse in MLS since 2005. His participation on the MLS Cup-winning Colorado Rapids team in 2010 has added the much-needed leadership the team lacked last season. The battle he will have with Diego Chara or Will Johnson will be a key factor for success. In addition, his ability to work with Nyarko and fellow midfielder Joel Lindpere are essential for victory. If Portland is able to mix it up in the mid, Chicago will need something special to take home three points.
When it comes down to it, this will not be an easy match for either team. Portland has a fast paced system of ball distribution that includes a huge number of short passes. Chicago, on the other hand, needs to figure out how to repeat their performance against DC. Portland was also able to get a 2-nil win against United as well. So, by that metric, they seem to be very similar. It appears on paper to come down to the goalkeeper.
Sean Johnson has received attention from US Head Coach Jurgen Klinnsman. He is pretty darn good at minding the net. He is tested and proven to be skilled. He is young however, and his back line has not been consistent. As mentioned earlier, Kocic has seen little top flight minutes this season. He seems to be match fit and on form, but he has yet to deal with the likes of Magee this season while playing on the reserve squad. I am not making any predictions, but this, combined with back line play for both teams, is essential.
Will Portland push their streak of unbeaten games to 12? Will they be able to remain undefeated on the road? It’s tough to really say. My bias says sure they can. But, reality has to remind me anything can happen in soccer. Chicago is not a poor side at all. They have the quality to protect their house and take home three points. But what team will show up? Will it be the one that beat DC last week, or the one that Chivas USA beat 4 to 1? The only way to tell is to play the game.
Tune in to local broadcasting to catch the match on television. For the Portland metro market, tune to Root Sports for the broadcast. Chicago fans not able to attend can tune towards My50 Chicago. Kick off takes place at 7:30 Central Time. Fans able to be in attendance will be provided a limited-edition coaster set, and will also be participating in the team’s military appreciation festivities.