Coming off of their most lopsided loss since mid-March on Wednesday night in D.C., the Portland Timbers face a short turnaround ahead of a crucial match against fellow Western Conference contender Sporting Kansas City on Saturday night at Children's Mercy Park (5:30 p.m., TV on KPDX).
It's usually at about this point in the season that Sporting falls apart after a strong start, but this year's swoon might have come early: after losing five of six games between the end of June and end of July, including a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal, Peter Vermes' men have bounced back with two straight road wins.
They were two strong road wins, too — at Houston, and then, last weekend, at LAFC. They mean that, heading into Saturday, Sporting sits second in the Western Conference, two points above the Timbers, having played 23 games to Portland's 22.
The key for Sporting in their recent turnaround has been defense. So long this team's calling card Sporting has already conceded more goals this year than they did in all of 2017.
But if the last two games, both shutouts, are indicative of what's to come over the season's final two-and-a-half months, Kansas City could be in business. Attacking wise, they're much improved over last year — and strengthened further in the transfer window by securing the return of Timbers assassin Krisztian Nemeth.
The Timbers went into their game on Wednesday night with a record of of 3-0-2 when using a back five. But D.C. pretty well exploited the formation, attacking the soft spots in central midfield around Diego Chara, and, in the second half, holding the ball at will.
Sporting is another possession-oriented team, even if they have a less skillful front four, and they'll likely control proceedings.
That's more or less what happened when these teams met in Portland in June. In that game, though, Sporting played fairly conservatively — staying organized defensively even when they had the ball and limiting the Timbers' opportunities in transition to secure a 0-0 draw.
Then, Kansas City mostly relied on their wide players, namely Johnny Russell, to create offense out of one v. one matchups. On Saturday, they'll likely commit more numbers forward and attack in the middle of the field, with Felipe Gutierrez, who missed the last meeting with an injury, bursting out of midfield.
Portland's defense will have to be much sharper than it was in D.C. Sporting has scored multiple goals in every home game they've played this summer. If they can lock things down defensively, they'll get their chances going the other way.
1 - Attinella
16 - Valentin
18 - Cascante
13 - Olum
33 - Mabiala
2 - Powell
20 - Guzman
21 - Chara
10 - Blanco
8 - Valeri (C)
99 - Armenteros
— Giovani Savarese's decision not to rest any key players on Wednesday night was an odd one. Will it affect the lineup here? We'll see.
— The big question is about the formation — does Savarese think that the tactics failed in D.C.? Or just the players?
— Either way, I think it's likely that he'll bring in David Guzman to try to stiffen things up in midfield. Players who might be on the chopping block are Cascante, Olum, and Andy Polo, the former two especially if Savarese goes with a back four.
— For at least the next two months, Steve Clark — Columbus' goalkeeper in MLS Cup 2015 — is the new backup. The Timbers claimed him off waivers today with Jake Gleeson out.
The Timbers have a very strong record in Kansas City, and that includes last year's 1-1 draw — in which Diego Valeri scored one of the best goals of his MVP campaign.
With Sporting resurgent and the Timbers' on short rest, this doesn't set up well. SKC wins 2-1.