BDS1. The season-ending injury to Portland's captain Will Johnson was expected to be a huge blow. How have the Timbers weathered it so far, and has anything been done to mitigate that gaping hole in the lineup?
STF- It hasn't been nearly the blow people expected, for several reasons. One is that Will Johnson wasn't having anywhere near as good a season this year as he did in 2013. To be fair, he was playing better closer to the end of the year, but the production he provided last season wasn't really part of this season. A second reason is the solid play of Ben Zemanski alongside Diego Chara. In addition to being a consistent, if unspectacular player, Zemanski is almost exclusively defensive-minded. That frees Chara to roam the midfield and wreak havoc on opposing attackers. When Johnson is in the line up, Chara is forced to sit deeper and hold position while Johnson drifts forward. With Jonson out, Chara is closer to the best possible version of himself while Zemanski holds the ground behind him. That's really helped the team keep the same shape and mostly play well down the stretch. It is true that Johnson is kind of the team's emotional leader, and it's possible the loss of that has had some impact. But Caleb Porter is a pretty fiery guy and can get his players' attention without relying on Johnson. I wouldn't say the Timbers are better without him, but Johnson going out injured has simply not had the dramatic impact many thought it would.
BDS2. How will the midweek CCL trip to Honduras impact the Timbers' game in Frisco this weekend?
STF- Well, that didn't go as planned. Not only did the Timbers lose in embarrassing fashion on Tuesday night in Tegucigalpa, they did so while using Diego Valeri for 45 minutes, Rodney Wallace for 71 and Liam Ridgewell, Jorge Villafana and Ben Zemanski for 90. Each of those guys is going to have to go again on Saturday for Portland in Frisco on relatively short rest and with obvious disappointment. That said, there is now only one motivation left for the Timbers and winning against FC Dallas would be the only possible redemption for the stunning crash out of the Champions League. Though Portland will still require Vancouver to drop points over the weekend, a win would put pressure on the Whitecaps to do the same, in a game that starts roughly 90 minutes after Dallas-Portland. So in a season that suddenly went from not great to disastrous, Saturday night in Frisco is the last chance for this Timbers team to prove that they are not a complete failure this calendar year.
BDS3. Caleb Porter landed a Coach of the Year award in his rookie MLS season with Portland. With 1 game left to go, how would you grade his sophomore year? What are his particular strengths and weaknesses as a fit for the Timbers?
STF- Porter has done a pretty good job this year of adjusting his preferred style to the specific personnel. Namely that the team he had last year is quite different from this. He's been more flexible with how he employs Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri, he's rotated (until recently) between Fanendo Adi and Maximiliano Urruti as the starting forward, and he's been able plug in Ben Zemanski (as discussed above) to cover for Will Johnson's injury. Despite his reputation for one, specific style of play, Porter's strength is basically convincing everyone that's what he's doing but really moving the pieces around to attack different weaknesses and exploit spaces. It doesn't always come off but what he's doing is so much more interesting and nuanced that the lame 'Porterball' moniker people immediately attach to him.
One of his weaknesses comes in dealing with the local media. Porter exists on a different plane when it comes to tactics and talking about them. Most folks in the local media aren't interested in that or ask pretty stupid questions, which leads to Porter looking and sounding very annoyed and disinterested. That doesn't really affect his job performance but it does make him look frustrated even when he's trying to talk about good results or successful games. This has increased over time and has been much more evident in 2014, though that has of course coincided with more disappointing results than 2013. He often gets stuck between answering questions he seems to think are too simplistic or boring and the time limits the media relations staff give him to answer things after training or games. When he gets on a roll, it's fantastic, but the staff really limits those opportunities. So that's partly his fault and partly not, but it's definitely something that is a direct result of the generally soft media coverage in Portland.
So to grade him this year, I think he's probably still in the B range. It turns out there's only so much a coach can do when the players have let downs or the personnel isn't good enough. On the other hand he's overly relied on Pa Modou Kah and wasted money and roster space on a clearly unhealthy Steve Zakuani. Those aren't disasters, but they're not an A performance either.
GK - Donovan Ricketts
LB - Jorge Villafana
CB - Pa Kah
CB - Liam Ridgewell
RB - Alvas Powell
DM - Ben Zemanski
DM - Diego Chara
LM - Rodney Wallace
ACM - Diego Valeri
RM - Darlington Nagbe
F - Fanendo Adi
*** now let's look at my answer's to Portland's questions ***
STF1. After a come-from-behind win against LA Galaxy the week before, FC Dallas managed to only beat Colorado Rapids 1-0 through a Blas Perez penalty. Any signs that Dallas might be vulnerable? Or was the score not reflective of the performance against Colorado?
BDS- The performance was below expectations for FC Dallas. Both teams missed a lot of chances; there should have been more goals. The one take away that is indicative of this Dallas team, however, is the ability to gut out a result. Time and time again this season, FCD has fought for points, even when they aren't firing on all cylinders.
FCD is riding high with a lot of confidence right now. The team has beat every western conference playoff opponent this season. A lot of teams are going to dread seeing this team in the playoffs. With all that being said, the next match is against Portland at home. Dallas has gone 10 seasons since winning their last home regular season match. It's ridiculous to think about. Beating Portland would break a very long, ugly streak. The team isn't vulnerable right now; they are motivated. Motivated to break that trend, motivated to finish in 3rd place, and motivated to keep winning into the playoffs.
STF2. With third place on the line, it seems unlikely Dallas would hold anyone out of Saturday's game. But with the possibility that it could be the Timbers in the play-in game next week against the Hoops, do you expect anything unusual from Oscar Pareja this weekend?
BDS- I don't expect anything you haven't seen before. Pareja has been brave to experiment this season and continue to tinker with the starting eleven when something seems amiss. I think you will see a lineup similar to what we saw in the second half against Colorado last weekend. I think OP will select the combination of Tesho Akindele and Blas Perez over David Texeira - although the Uruguayan has done well in recent weeks. OP and FCD will go all in on this match. If they win that gamble, it will pay off with additional rest, bypassing the play-in match. It's double-or-nothing though because losing this gamble will mean that FCD faces a quick turnaround midweek match after exhausting all the starters on Saturday. It will make for an interesting game.
STF3. Which Timbers players are you most worried about, especially with the possibility of playing twice in a short period of time?
BDS- I'll be watching out for Pa Modou Kah and Donovan Ricketts. Kah seems to know which buttons to push when it comes to his temperamental opponents. One of the downsides of having a youthful team is that a rookie mindset doesn't always have that experience to know how to mitigate a hard defender chipping away for 90 minutes. FCD is behaving well this second part of the season, but that is only after earning a bunch of red cards earlier on in the campaign. Ricketts knows how to come up big when it really matters. He did it for Los Angeles. I'm sure many of the Timbers Army are hoping he can do it for Portland.
On the offensive side, the combination play between Wallace, Nagbe, and Adi has me a little bit concerned. It only takes one mistake for those guys to finish a chance. FCD has been punished in the past. I think Nagbe particularly likes scoring goals against Dallas. It's going to take some real cohesion in the Dallas backline to keep those attackers at bay. I think that's why we'll see Loyd paired up with Hedges again. The experience and intelligence he brings far outweighs his slightly shorter stature compared to Zimmerman.
Raul Fernandez, Kellyn Acosta, Zach Loyd, Matt Hedges, JeVaughn Watson, Victor Ulloa, Adam Moffat, Fabian Castillo, Andres Escobar, Blas Perez, Tesho Akindele