With just a month-and-a-half remaining in the MLS regular season, the Western Conference playoff race remains wide open — and the Portland Timbers, in the thick of that race, will have a rare opportunity on Saturday to steal three points on the road when they take on a Houston Dyanmo team winless in ten (5:30 p.m., TV on KPDX).
It's been a difficult, disappointing year for the Dynamo — a team that, after reaching the Western Conference Finals last season, currently sits 13 points below the playoff red line with just seven games left to play. Houston will host the U.S. Open Cup Final at the end of the month, but their league season is over.
What went wrong? Losing influential defensive midfielder Juan David Cabezas at the beginning of the season hurt, and the rest of the team has certainly struggled with its transition away from the counter attacking style it used so effectively last year to a more possession-orientated, front-foot setup.
But despite all of that, there is no good reason that the Dynamo should be out of playoff contention already. Despite barely averaging a point per game, they actually have a positive goal differential — one that is 16 goals better Minnesota United, the team directly above them in the West standings.
The Dynamo haven't played all that terribly. What they've done is drop an awful lot of points from winning positions, especially in second halves. Second-year manager Wilmer Cabrera has been criticized for his substitution patterns, and, in the last two months his team hasn't had the fight it played last year with.
All eyes for Houston are on the Open Cup Final, and they'll likely rest their starters when they play Orlando next Saturday. This Saturday, however, they should be at full strength.
Cabrera opted to play a 5-3-2 when these two teams met in Portland back in July, but at home in this game, a standard 4-2-3-1 — with Mauro Manotas leading the line and the dangerous trio of Alberth Elis, Tomas Martinez, and Romell Quioto behind him — seems most likely.
The Timbers, interestingly enough, also deployed a 5-3-2 in that game, and it's not entirely out of the question that Giovani Savarese would try something similar here to try to contain Houston's front players in transition. If he doesn't go that route, the 4-3-2-1 will again be preferred.
Either way, the Timbers will invite Houston forward, stay tight defensively, and try to attack in transition — which is almost how the Dynamo beat them in the playoffs last season. Much of the shape of the game will be determined by how aggressive Cabrera wants his team to be with the ball.
As always with games in Texas, the weather might play a factor. The forecast for Saturday calls for a high of 89 degrees and thunderstorms — conditions that Houston, having not played since September 1, should embrace.
12 - Clark
4 - Villafaña
24 - Ridgewell
33 - Mabiala
16 - Valentin
13 - Olum
21 - Chara
11 - Polo
10 - Blanco
8 - Valeri (C)
99 - Armenteros
— With Jorge Villafaña settling in, it's getting to be decision time for Savarese with regards to the right back spot. Whoever misses out on Saturday night will almost certainly play on Wednesday against Columbus.
— Jeremy Ebobisse certainly impressed in his first start of the season last week, and he too might be in contention for a place against the Crew if he doesn't start over Samuel Armenteros in this one.
— Jeff Attinella is expected to miss at least the next few weeks with his hamstring injury, so Steve Clark will continue in goal.
When last the Timbers played Houston, Fanendo Adi said goodbye with an unforgettable goal.
The Timbers have much more to play for than Houston, but that was also the case when they visited BBVA Compass Stadium in late 2016 and lost 3-1. This contest will finish even at a goal apiece.