Columbus Crew star Federico Higuain in sorrow
Image: USA Today
Columbus Crew star Federico Higuain in sorrow

We might just have to change the chant to “E.T. F.C.”—not for aliens, but for Extra Time, where the Timbers have been living and dying all year. Last week’s match with the Galaxy was not only a continuation of that trend, it was its embodiment.

With the match destined to end in a well-deserved scoreless draw, Portland’s defense was caught ball-watching on a long throw-in, allowing Robbie Keane to slither his way into space and head in the go-ahead goal, uncontested. That was two minutes into stoppage time, another late gut-punch that turned an acceptable result into a disastrous one.

Watch it again. Even in knowing what happens next, it still looks as if the Timbers are going to lose.

In the last dying breaths of four minutes of stoppage time, captain Will Johnson chested down a hopeful cross and played a marvelous back heel. Surrounded by defenders, Johnson found an on-coming Diego Valeri, who fired a low, hard shot over the outstretched arm of Galaxy keeper Jaime Panedo and into the old onion bag. Elation, relief, justice served.

Portland have momentum, not frustration, heading into this weekend. On Saturday, yet another Eastern Conference foe, the fourth in six home matches, comes to Providence Park. This time, it’s the Columbus Crew, one of the MLS Original Ten, stewards of the first local TV deal and soccer-specific stadium in the MLS era, and unlikely possessors of talisman forward Federico Higuain. Unlikely because large names tend to end up in bigger places, or Seattle.

Higuain represents one of the most unique and dangerous threats in MLS, a rare combination of intelligent movement, precise distribution, and cold-blooded goal scoring. Think Robbie Keane crossed with Diego Valeri. He takes the majority of the Crew’s corners and free kicks, and leads the team with four goals. He is just as likely to curl it in from 25 yards as he is to place the ball perfectly in the path of his team’s heavy artillery. 

Preliminary World Cup training camp will, however, strip Columbus of USMNT central defender, Michael Parkhurst, and Costa Rican left back, Waylon Francis. Two other key pieces, defender Giancarlo Gonzalez and forward Jairo Arrieta, have reportedly been granted a stay with Columbus until after this weekend, and should be available for selection. Needless to say, a Crew back line depleted of two key starters is an inviting prospect for Portland. 

Still, Columbus’s combination of speed and size (including 6’4 midfielder Tony Tchani) provides a unique challenge for the comparatively under-sized Timbers. So too does the absence of Timbers career leader in minutes played, Diego Chara. It’s hard to imagine the Timbers midfield without him, but the Colombian required surgery this week to stabilize the fractured third metacarpal in his left hand, suffered in the second half of the Galaxy match.  He is expected to miss two weeks. With Chara out, expect like-for-like replacement Ben Zemanski to step into the holding midfielder slot alongside Will Johnson. Another likely absence is defender Michael Harrington, whose injured left ankle (also suffered against the Galaxy) has him listed officially as “doubtful” for this weekend. If “Mikey Mo Money” can’t go,  we are likely to see the dynamic 19-year old Alvas Powell start in his stead. Powell possesses exciting, game-changing offensive ability, but is somewhat of a defensive liability, and with the tricky task of containing Federico Higuain looming, Portland’s more experienced defensive-minded players will have the spotlight shone on their performance.

Finally, the answer to the age-old (read: ten games) question of “where will the goals come from” desperately needs to come from Darlington Nagbe. With new striker Fanendo Adi still shaking off jetlag from his Copenhagen-Amsterdam-Portland odyssey, it is most likely to be up to the current cast of characters to find a way through the Crew defense.

Make no mistake about it: the season is still young, but the schedule is getting tougher. A trip to Red Bull Arena is next on the calendar, and it is imperative that Portland finishes this home stand with three points, seven of a possible nine overall, and a foundation upon which a playoff push can be built.