Make no mistake: Monday night's July 4th tilt between the Colorado Rapids and Portland Timbers isn't about the Timbers. Instead, with Tim Howard set to make his Rapids debut and first MLS appearance since 2003, it's one of the biggest days Dick's Sporting Goods Park has ever seen (6:00 PM, TV on ROOT Sports).
Colorado has more than the arrival of a star goalkeeper to celebrate. The Rapids, dismal in 2015, are somehow atop the Western Conference halfway through 2016. Pablo Mastroeni's club is on an unbeaten run of eleven games. They haven't lost at home all season. The Timbers, meanwhile, haven't won on the road year.
This is the first meeting of the year between Portland and Colorado. Last season's games between the two clubs were especially memorable for the Timbers — with Jack Jewsbury scoring a stoppage time winner in Colorado in May, and a comprehensive 4-1 victory in the Rose City rain on the final day of the season setting the stage for the playoff run to follow.
Colorado hasn't beaten Portland since the third week of the 2014 season, with the Timbers winning three of the last four meetings between the teams. In six matchups against the Rapids, Caleb Porter has only lost the one time.
But this Rapids team looks quite a bit different from the doormat it was during the first two years of the Pablo Mastroeni era. In addition to Howard, Colorado will be welcoming back star players Jermaine Jones and Shkelzen Gashi.
It's not all sunshine and champagne for the Timbers, who, once again, have been hit by injury and uncertainty. The second half comeback against Houston last Sunday engineered by Diego Valeri and Lucas Melano masked what was a poor performance.
On Wednesday night, Portland was knocked out of the US Open Cup on home soil by the LA Galaxy. In the process, Valeri picked up a knock that could rule him out of this game. Liam Ridgewell has a knee problem, while Jake Gleeson, who didn't play midweek, is trying to make it through a hamstring problem. Dairon Asprilla, meanwhile is gone — loaned back to Colombia and unlikely to ever play for the Timbers again.
Portland does have Darlington Nagbe back in the fold, along with Alvas Powell. The Jamaican came off injured in his return to action against Houston, but should be ready to go on Monday. Powell, all logic says, needs to start playing well to fend of a challenge to his status as the number one right back by Zarek Valentin.
If Gleeson can't play, the job will fall to rookie Wade Hamilton with Adam Kwarasey still at least a week away from full fitness. Regardless of Ridgewell's status, the defense is likely to be a patchwork affair in front of whoever plays in goal.
The Timbers will be hoping that Melano picks up where he left off on Sunday, while Darren Mattocks looks likely to retain his spot on the wing and push Nagbe into the #10 role if Valeri can't start. It's likely to be an ugly game. The Rapids get results, but they don't play pretty. Without several starters, Portland will be in a similar frame of mind.
90 - Gleeson
2 - Powell
4 - Taylor
7 - Borchers
16 - Valentin
14 - Zemanski
21 - Chara
22 - Mattocks
6 - Nagbe
26 - Melano
9 - Adi
Colorado has been excellent at home all year, and there's no chance they won't be up for this game. How they handle that pressure is a legitimate question — and it's worth being wary of any MLS game that appears lopsided — but the Timbers don't look fit to play spoiler here. 2-1 Rapids.