For the very first time since the beginning of the 2015 season, the Portland Timbers will start an MLS match with neither Nat Borchers nor Liam Ridgewell on the field. Borchers ruptured his Achilles tendon against the LA Galaxy last Sunday. He underwent successful surgery on Thursday, but is out for the season.
Ridgewell is suspended due to a controversial new MLS rule that bans players who miss the All-Star game, as the captain did on Thursday night. Had Ridgewell, who missed the LA game with a calf problem, been available for selection, he might have made the trip.
As is, the duel absences of the center backs who led the Portland to MLS Cup last year make the Timbers underdogs as they travel to Kansas City to face Sporting on Sunday in a game that could have major implications in the Western Conference playoff race (11:00 AM, TV on FOX).
This is the first meeting of the Timbers and SKC since the Wild Card round of the playoffs last year and one of the greatest MLS games ever played.
It was a see-saw match, with Portland taking the lead midway through the second half, only for Kansas City to equalize late and send the match to extra time. Krisztian Nemeth then gave Sporting the lead with a sensational goal, only for Maxi Urruti to send the match to penalties with a goal one minute from time.
The shootout wasn't settled until the twenty-second kick, from backup Kansas City goalkeeper Jon Kempin, was saved by Timbers' goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey. Before the decisive moment, Kansas City hit two posts with two potential game-winning penalties.
The most memorable of those penalties, of course, was Saad Abdul-Salaam's — which hit both posts before coming out, and is the namesake of the Timbers Army bar at Providence Park. It's hard to imagine that Portland will ever play and win a more incredible game.
The entire Timbers organization has been up in arms about the ruling that Ridgewell can't play due to his All-Star game absence. Merritt Paulson, Gavin Wilkinson, and Caleb Porter all had conversations with the league, but there was no room to maneuver.
The rule is understandable from MLS' perspective — they don't want their marquee players to be skipping the game — but it needs to be amended slightly, so that if the player in question misses the game before the All-Star game, they aren't suspended for the game after the All-Star game.
Without Ridgewell and Borchers, and with Steven Taylor not officially signed yet, the Timbers are down to Jermaine Taylor and Amobi Okugo at center back. Portland knows what it's getting with Taylor — mediocrity at best — but Okugo is a more interesting proposition. He looked good against the Galaxy, but this will be his first MLS start in more than a year.
With Vytas still a week away from starting, Zarek Valentin is expected to continue at left back. New backup goalkeeper Chris Konopka could be on the bench. Ahead of the defense, the Timbers should be unchanged, though Darlington Nagbe did go 45 minutes against Arsenal on Thursday night. Darren Mattocks is nearing fitness, and could be available for the Champions League game midweek.
Sporting has problems of their own. Matt Besler — like Ridgewell, suspended for this game because he missed the All-Star game injured — is out, as is his national team teammate Graham Zusi. Dom Dwyer, who may be on his way to Olympiakos, could be out as well.
It's been a difficult season for Peter Vermes' team, and although they drilled the final nail into Sigi Schmid's coffin with a 3-0 win over the Sounders last weekend, Sporting still is by no means a team to fear. Portland, if they can get their attack going, should have every chance to get a result.
90 - Gleeson
2 - Powell
4 - Taylor
18 - Okugo
16 - Valentin
14 - Zemanski
21 - Chara
6 - Nagbe
8 - Valeri
26 - Melano
9 - Adi
The Timbers are usually good with their backs against the wall, and Kansas City will be missing a number of key pieces. That being said, Portland hasn't won a game all year on the road, and they've won just once in ten games this season without Ridgewell. 2-2 draw.