Winless in five games, and having parted ways with head athletic trainer Nik Wald this week, the Portland Timbers face another stiff test tonight at Providence Park: a meeting with red-hot, Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Fire (7:30 pm, TV on KPDX).
This is the last game the Timbers will play before the commencement of two week break for the group stage of the Gold Cup, and they desperately need a win — not so much for their standing in the Western Conference playoff race as for the tenor of a season that continues to darken.
These two clubs have squared off sparingly in the last seven years, but fewer series have been kinder to the Timbers. Chicago has never beaten Portland in MLS play, a streak dating back to the Timbers' MLS home opener at Jeld-Wen Field in 2011.
Last year's game was a sleepy affair in Bridgeview, drawn 1-1, and most notable for it being the final appearance of left back Chris Klute for the Timbers.
The last meeting at Providence Park came back in 2015, with the Timbers beating the Fire 1-0 on Lucas Melano's debut. Only two players who appeared for Chicago in that game, Matt Polster and David Accam, are still with the club.
The Fire haven't made the playoffs since 2012, but this year is different. Chicago is, both on points and on points per game, the league's best team. The Fire have won eight consecutive games at Toyota Park, eight of their last nine in MLS overall, and haven't lost a league game since April. They're on an extraordinary run.
The Timbers enter this game even more shorthanded than they were in Kansas City, as Alvas Powell and Darren Mattocks have both left the team to join Jamaica camp ahead of the Gold Cup.
Powell's departure means that Zarek Valentin will make his seventh start of the season at right back. Aside from that one change, the rest of the lineup should be unchanged. Darlington Nagbe was phenomenal in central midfield against KC, but Chicago — the best passing team in the league — should present a stiffer test for Nagbe on the defensive side of the ball.
Between all the injuries and absences, the Timbers will only be able to dress seventeen players. In what is surely a move related to the injuries, Portland parted ways with Wald — who had been with the club since 2007 and served on the medical staff under Gavin Wilkinson, John Spencer, and Caleb Porter — on Monday.
As for the Fire, the games are piling up. This team played 120 minutes in the U.S. Open Cup in Cincinnati a week ago, before a 4-0 annihilation of Vancouver over the weekend. Dax McCarty is with the U.S.'s Gold Cup team, while Bastian Schweinsteiger left the game against the Whitecaps early and is listed as questionable.
But no matter who has been in the lineup of late, Chicago has rolled. Nagbe and Ben Zemanski, who made his first league start in some eleven months in Kansas City, have a big job ahead of them — as do Roy Miller and Lawrence Olum, with the league's leading scorer Nemanja Nikolic in a rich vein of form.
90 - Gleeson
5 - Vytas
7 - Miller
13 - Olum
16 - Valentin
14 - Zemanski
6 - Nagbe
10 - Blanco
8 - Valeri (C)
27 - Asprilla
9 - Adi
Chicago, whether or not Schweinsteiger plays, will be better able to pull apart the Timbers' weakened back six than Kansas City was on Saturday. But the Fire have played a lot of soccer in the last week, and Portland will get their chances on the counter. 2-2 draw.