This Saturday night, the Portland Timbers will visit the Colorado Rapids – and fans of both teams will be asked to endure this…at least Rapids’ fans are used to it.
I did some light scouting last night – e.g., reviewed some (condensed) tape, tried to check in with the locals by way of SB Nation’s Burgundy Wave, but they only do match reports, sooo…here's what I found on those condensed tapes.
First, I wouldn’t put a ton of stock into the Rapids’ home record. It’s solid, at 4-2-1 (unlike their road record, which is abysmal, also irrelevant), and it’s true that two of those wins came in their last two games. One of those – their 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City – even registers as impressive on paper, but, per the condensed game, they didn’t win that game so much as survive it; SKC looked to have a lot of the better of the game (and the boxscore bears that out). Colorado looked better against Columbus Crew SC – they kept Zac Steffen respectably busy early – but they still trailed late and, while more than luck carried them through it, their first goal against Columbus was the only one from all three games that looked like something they could do again. In other words, it's not every game opposing defenses will gift them a win by losing Alan Gordon at the back post (or, ideally, Fanendo Adi).
It’s the familiar formula against Colorado, then – i.e., see they don’t accidentally bounce the ball into your team’s net, while making sure your side knocks at least one goal into their net (though a couple, three goals certainly sounds better) – and, voila, three points! And that could be easier this season than last - they're broadly middling in terms of MLS defenses - and it could be easier still on Saturday: injuries/risks to the back-line (and all over, really) have forced Colorado to cobble together defenses/a team in recent weeks; they’re only really stable at fullback (and then, not that great; Mikeil Williams/Eric Miller, in particular, shouldn’t give pause to anyone but the Rapids coaching staff). In the center, Kortne Ford (rookie, homegrown) has been the only constant over the past three games, but he, along with preferred starters, Axel Sjoberg and Jared Watts, is “questionable” for Saturday. With preferred back-up, Bobby Burling out, I’m guessing “questionable” will become “probable (with cortisone)” for one or two of Ford, Sjoberg and Watts, but Colorado’s defense isn’t 100% present regardless. For what it’s worth, Ford has looked good when he plays, and I rate Sjoberg pretty damn high; Watts, a converted midfielder, falls off without Sjoberg, so there’s that to file away.
Another big factor goes deeper: Colorado traded away Sam Cronin earlier this season, and that weakened the coverage in front of that bruis’d back line. Michael Azira has been a rock – he’s sneaky good, really – but he’s faced with the same issue that plagues the central defense, i.e., a rotating cast of partners. The Rapids paper this over reasonably well by staying compact in the heart of Zone 14, but Portland’s attack – not just Adi, but also the oft-irrepressible Diego Valeri, the permanently tricky Darlington Nagbe, and the decent-yet-heretofore-repressible Sebastian Blanco, and the historically-repressible Dairon Asprilla (sorry, got carried away with the gag) has enough hydra-heads to keep even a good defense guessing.
While generally solid, Colorado’s defense did something in their win over SKC that Portland might look to exploit. The Rapids shifted its defense too far over toward the side SKC was attacking on a couple occasions; this left their weak-side fullback isolated…no, I mean isolated, a crack SKC pried at by floating the midfielder wide and having a fullback (or even a central defender) fly forward at the right moment. Again, just something to file away…
After that, I think Portland’s pretty capable of attacking the gaps around a defensive-midfielder/center-back block pairing (what was my old phrase for that?) and, failing that, that they’ll try to get guys behind Colorado on the outside….which may or may or not work, I mean, because, what if the Rapids defend deep, make Portland shoot from range. I’m just saying that Colorado has as many ways to defend as Portland has to attack – even as I think they prefer the latter (i.e., play deep, make teams shoot from range). Regardless, I think Portland has better attacking players for both approaches. I’d say I know it, y’know, if that didn’t feel like a jinx.
The same can’t be said for the Rapids. Injuries have killed them up top all season (I could feel hope fleeing The Dick when the hamstring injury hit Shkelzen Gashi a couple weeks back), but their personnel has fallen short pretty consistently since, oh, God tapped his watch and time started. After watching him for a couple years, I’ve finally figured out how to describe Kevin Doyle (stop me if you've heard this before) – he’s a good player, who does everything well, except being a forward. It looked like Dominique Badji gave Columbus as much trouble as anybody – he’s got “harassing forward” upside - and he can do things well enough with each of his different body parts, but none of them well enough to give the guys supplying service a particular strength to play to. As for the rest, Marlon Hairston gives good spot service, Joshua Gatt hasn’t found his feet yet, and Dillon Powers hasn’t done any of the jobs he’s been given over the past two years well enough at all: their attack, as a whole, feels like waiting on happy accidents. Like faith healing, only with lower stakes.
As for Portland, the gang’s all there otherwise, minus David Guzman (and that’s it, right?). Speaking for myself, between last week’s optimism about the Timbers’ depth and me throwing the gauntlet at the Rapids attack (what say you, sirrah, about your honor?), I like Portland’s chances in this one. And three points feels reasonably in reach. Colorado’s hobbled and, honestly, they’ve had a crappy season.