It has all come down to this. After 33 games over seven months, the Portland Timbers' playoff fate is relatively simple going into their final match of the season in Vancouver on Sunday (1:00 PM, TV on ROOT Sports). Win, and the Timbers are in. Anything else, and their 2016 season is likely over.
The Timbers have come up with a number of big wins at BC Place over the years, but they haven't won a road game in MLS all season long. After being knocked out of the CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday night, this is Portland's last chance to salvage its season — and defend its MLS Cup crown.
There are plenty of reasons for the Timbers to feel confident heading into Sunday's game. Portland's record in big games in Vancouver is nearly impeccable.
The Timbers beat Vancouver in the 'Caps first match at BC Place in 2011, won the Cascadia Cup at there in 2012, thumped the Whitecaps 3-0 in the final month of the 2014 season, and knocked Vancouver out of the playoffs with a resounding 2-0 triumph in 2012.
Earlier this year, however, the Timbers lost at Vancouver for just the second time in their MLS history. The Whitecaps came from behind to beat Portland 2-1 after Nat Borchers opened the scoring, with Jake Gleeson at fault for both goals. Gleeson has been lights out from that day forward.
All told, the Whitecaps have had a dreadful season. They were eliminated from playoff contention two weeks ago, and are currently sitting in ninth place in the Western Conference. Along those lines, goalkeeper David Ousted and captain Pedro Morales came to blows in training this week.
A 3-0 win net Vancouver the Cascadia Cup, but any result short of that, would mean that the Timbers would take that prize for the first time under Caleb Porter.
The Timbers Army will bring a sizable contingent of supporters to BC Place. If there was ever a time for the team to win away from home for the first time all year, this is it.
This should be Portland's game. But as has been the case throughout the season, there are a number of difficult mitigating circumstances to contend with.
For starters, both Diego Chara and Liam Ridgewell are suspended for the game due to yellow card accumulation. Both Diego Valeri and Jack Jewsbury have been dealing with injuries in the wake of last Sunday's win over Colorado, and neither have trained all week.
Valeri and Jewsbury could both still be available, but Ben Zemanski, who has a collapsed lung, is out. Jermaine Taylor is likely to slide into Ridgewell's place next to Steven Taylor in central defense — which is a disaster waiting to happen — but the central midfield situation is where Porter will have to get creative.
Ned Grabavoy, who is also retiring at the end of the season, could be called upon if Jewsbury can't play. Another option is Amobi Okugo, who has only played center back this season, but started his MLS career as a central midfielder. In either case, Darlington Nagbe is likely to move back to the central midfield role that he played with such success at the end of last season.
Darren Mattocks, still working his way back from a hamstring injury, came off the bench midweek and should start. If Valeri can't play, Lucas Melano is likely to occupy the opposite wing spot with Fanendo Adi up top. If the Timbers are going to do this, they're going to do it shorthanded.
In any case, Portland is going to have to generate more offense than they have in recent weeks on the road. Vancouver manager Carl Robinson, a friend of Porter's, will name a strong team — one that may be built to try to expose the Timbers' lack of pace in central defense.
90 - Gleeson
2 - Powell
4 - J. Taylor
27 - S. Taylor
5 - Vytas
13 - Jewsbury (C)
10 - Grabavoy
6 - Nagbe
22 - Mattocks
26 - Melano
9 - Adi
1-1 draw. I don't believe in the Timbers on the road, and neither should you. But this team has the ultimate chance to prove everyone wrong.