In the middle of a busy schedule, Major League Soccer gifted its teams a two-week break for the World Cup. Maybe nobody told the Timbers. As MLS team after MLS team bowed out of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, Caleb Porter took the fourth-round match up with USL-Pro side Orlando City’s U-23’s more as an opportunity to make a run at a trophy than as one to rest his starters. He took it seriously enough to hand significant minutes to a number of regulars, including Gaston Fernandez, whose brace ultimately propelled Portland to a 3-1 victory.
Portland’s prize for winning was a midweek trip to Sporting Kansas City six days later, setting up a rare Cup/League home-and-home with the defending MLS Cup champions. The Timbers were, once again, able to pull out three goals (including another brace from La Gata) and a win.
This all sets up a mouth-watering quarter-final matchup in Seattle on July 9, a mere five days before the Timbers visit their Fishing Village rivals in the league.
But first things first.
The aforementioned SKC come to the Rose City on Friday night without their talisman, Graham Zusi, or their defensive rock, Matt Besler, both of whom are quite busy at the moment. Unavailable too are experienced defenders Ike Opara and Chance Myers (both injured and out for the year), Spanish midfielder, Antonio Dovale (red card suspension), and striker C.J. Sapong (neck strain). Having Zusi and Besler away at the World Cup was already a big bonus for Portland, but SKC will in fact be without six key players, and they recently sold creative midfielder Oriol Rosell to Portuguese namesake, Sporting Lisbon.
A patchwork SKC lineup against the ever-strengthening Timbers should spell a must-win for Portland.
The Boys in Green have yet to prove they can win consistently at home, and Sporting still boast a good deal of talent. Former USMNT midfielder, Benny Feilhaber, has as many assists as Zusi, and forward Dom Dwyer just happens to be co-leading scorer, with 11 goals. Seven of which have come in his last seven games. Acting captain, Pablo Nagamura, French centerback, Aurélien Collin, and former Timber favorite, Sal Zizzo, highlight how deep the defending champs are. They just might start 17-year old phenom, Erik Palmer-Brown in central defense as well. Despite their recent run of 1W 3L 2D in their last six, a big game on a Friday night is plenty to get up for, and SKC are most certainly looking to leave Providence Park with three points.
As busy as the Timbers have been on the pitch during the “break”, they have been equally active in the transfer market. The good news first trickled in on Friday, June 20, in the form of a Merritt Paulson tweet. The picture made public by Portland’s owner was confirmed on the following Monday to be the signing of Fanendo Adi to a multi-year, Designated Player contract. Keeping the big Nigerian forward for the foreseeable future is a coup for the Timbers.
Not to be outdone, the Timbers announced the signing of English Premier League veteran defender, Liam Ridgewell, two days later. The 29-year old has played 11 seasons in England, with local rivals Aston Villa, Birmingham City, and most recently, West Bromwich Albion. The move to Portland will mark Ridgewell’s first professional minutes for a club not based in the West Midlands (other than a five-match loan at Bournemouth in 2002.) The left-sided defender will not be in Portland in time for this match, but when he arrives, the Timbers’ back line will be significantly bolstered.
The in-form Timbers have lost only once in their last nine league matches (the Vancouver debacle), and including the two Open Cup victories, have won five of their last seven. A happy and settled Adi, already with four goals and two assists to his name in six league matches, a streaking Gaston Fernandez, and Diego Valeri hitting last year’s MVP-candidate form equates to a dangerous prospect for a threadbare SKC. If they do start a 17-year old defender—who conceded a penalty in his first match—next to red-card-waiting-to-happen Collin, Portland could have a field day.
July will not be kind to the Timbers, who play just once at home. Trips to L.A. Galaxy, Seattle, and Montreal, plus the Open Cup quarter final in Tukwilla, highlight the importance of earning all three points on Friday.
There’s no rest for the weary.