IM1.jpg
Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers
With five games to go in the MLS regular season and just three points separating fourth and eighth place in the Western Conference standings, the Portland Timbers face another critical test at Providence Park tonight with the visit of the New York Red Bulls (7:30 p.m., TV on KPDX).

The Opponent

This may well be the Red Bulls' worst season since 2011, when they finished fifth in a nine-team Eastern Conference.

For a club that has been mostly dominant in the regular season since Jesse Marsch arrived five years ago, it's been a humbling campaign. Bradley Wright-Phillips has scored just two goals, no one has stepped up to replace Tyler Adams in midfield, and the team's vaunted press has taken a step back as well.

The writing is on the wall for Chris Armas, who took over as manager when Marsch departed for Europe in the middle of last season. If the Red Bulls don't surge to finish out the regular season and then win a playoff game or two, he may well be looking for work this winter.

This is the second of a two-game West Coast trip for the Red Bulls, who lost to Seattle at CenturyLink Field on Sunday. Armas may choose to rest several players tonight with an eye towards his team's weekend match against the Philadelphia Union, but all of the club's starters will be in Portland available for selection.

The Tactics

The Red Bulls did much of their damage over the last four years with the frenetic high press installed by Marsch, which was one of MLS's best and most unique tactical approaches.

The Red Bulls have used the press at times under Armas, with varying degrees of success, but it hasn't as much defined their setup this season as it has in seasons past. The question tonight is whether, playing on short rest against a team that has struggled mightily to break down bunkers, they'll use it at all.

What the Red Bulls do have, regardless of their approach higher up the field, is two elite center backs. If the Timbers send in as many crosses as they did in their loss to DC United on Sunday, it's going to be an easy evening for Aaron Long and Tim Parker.

With Brian Fernandez expected to be back in the lineup, the impetus is with the Timbers to be sharper with their movement and passing patterns through the middle of the field and diversify their attack. If and when they are forced to settle for crosses, they need to get traffic in the box.

A fast start is also an imperative. The Timbers have been virtually unbeatable this year when scoring first, while conceding first has led to three separate home losses in the space of a month. Right now, there are few teams in the league better equipped to play with a lead and few worse equipped to play from behind.

The Lineup

12 - Clark
16 - Valentin
25 - Tuiloma
5 - Dielna
2 - Moreira
21 - Chará
22 - Paredes
44 - Loría
8 - Valeri (C)
17 - Ebobisse
7 - Fernandez

— Sebastian Blanco and Larrys Mabiala are close to making their respective returns, but Sunday's game against Minnesota might be more likely.

— One player who is expected to be back in the team tonight is Brian Fernandez, who missed the DC game with a stomach virus. Zarek Valentin, who was with his wife and new baby, will be back as well.

— Cristhian Paredes hasn't started a game since August, but the expectation is that he'll be in the lineup in place of Eryk Williamson tonight.

The Memory

Support The Portland Mercury

The Timbers and Red Bulls played a sensational game when last they met at Providence Park in 2017, with a much of the drama coming in the final minutes.

The Pick

Both sides are plenty capable of doing damage, but neither is playing particularly good soccer. This finishes 1-1.