After a cathartic 4-2 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Portland Timbers set about the slightly less glamorous task of piling up points and dragging themselves up the Western Conference table before MLS breaks for the Copa America in early June.
First up for the Timbers is a Saturday night match in Chicago against the Eastern Conference's last-placed Fire (5:30 PM, TV on KPDX). Portland will be without Darlington Nagbe, who scored his first goal for the US National Team on Wednesday night, and is looking to win back-to-back games for the first time this season.
The Fire will forever have a special place in the hearts of Portlanders: Chicago was the opponent when the opened the renovated Jeld-Wen Field in 2011 for the club's first MLS home match on a day when the Timbers' got their first MLS win, by a resounding scoreline of four goals to two.
Since then, games between the two clubs haven't been terribly memorable. Portland beat Chicago last year in a rather poorly-played game at Providence Park. All told, the Fire have never beaten the Timbers. The last meeting in Bridgeview, where Chicago's Toyota Park is located, was in 2013 and finished 2-2 — with Ben Zemanski scoring his first, and to this point, only MLS goal for the Timbers.
Chicago, however, did beat the Timbers in the Simple Invitational by a 2-0 scoreline this February — and that tuneup match will be at the forefront of both coaches minds as they prepare for Saturday.
The Timbers' appear mostly settled with their 4-2-3-1 at this point in the season, so Nagbe's departure for national team duty could give the newly revitalized Dairon Asprilla a chance to make his first start since the team's loss to Orlando almost two months ago.
Jermaine Taylor is also gone preparing for the Copa America with Jamaica, and Chris Klute will be eager to make his mark after losing his place to Taylor after the Timbers' loss in Dallas several weeks ago. Fanendo Adi, who missed the Vancouver game through injury, should be avaliable either from the start or off the bench.
Ben Zemanski and Diego Chara should hold as the central midfielders, with Lucas Melano — still struggling mightily for form — out wide opposite the spot likely held by Asprilla. Timbers center-back Nat Borchers, whose wife gave birth to a baby girl on Tuesday, is with the team and expected to play.
Chicago, the worst team in the league last year, has endured a miserable start to life under Paunovic. The club has scored less than a goal per game, and has won just two of their first eleven matches. But the 5-3-2 they played in preseason in Portland worked well to suffocate space and could give the Fire a puncher's chance. Former Timber Michael Harrington, struggling with injury, is questionable.
90 - Gleeson
16 - Valentin
24 - Ridgewell (C)
7 - Borchers
15 - Klute
14 - Zemanski
21 - Chara
11 - Asprilla
8 - Valeri
26 - Melano
99 - McInerney
This game is and should play out as a mismatch. We're hitting that point in the season where the Timbers know they need to start stringing together wins, and this match is as good a place to start as any. What's more, Portland will get its first clean-sheet of the year in a 2-0 victory.