Sporting KC and Portland Timbers have played 3 matches this season with a grand total of 1 goal scored between the two of them. Of course, that one goal was equal to about 10 and it gave SKC all three points on October 3rd. But the playoffs are a whole new ordeal. That match against KC is the only loss for the Timbers in their last 5 matches to close out the season, and they've scored 9 goals the last two weeks.
I got with Will Conwell from over at Stumptown Footy to discuss Thursday's Knockout Round match at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon.
They ask us...
1. Sporting have been in rough shape recently, losing to the San Jose Earthquakes and Colorado Rapids before managing a 2-1 victory over the notoriously road-averse LA Galaxy; what is going on in Kansas City that is causing the team to struggle so much?
The Blue Testament: A problem this team has dealt with all season long is playing to the level of the opponent. They can hang with anybody, but they will also let anybody hang with them. At times Sporting look unstoppable, but they can also make you question how you ever thought they were any good at all this season! When the swoon in late August came, it was a perfect storm of injuries, call ups, and suspensions. Recently in the San Jose game, a pretty funky lineup was forced upon Peter Vermes and they were never able to find themselves. But the Colorado game was absolutely horrible. Nobody can really pin point the problem there. Especially when they come back a few days later and beat LA. I suppose it is possible KC was guilty of looking passed the Rapids, but their quotes leading up to it certainly didn't sound like that.
One thing is for sure about this team, they can grind out a result whenever it is truly necessary. They may not beat up on bad teams very often, but they will give themselves a shot anywhere. Even in what is sure to be a ruckus playoff environment against a solid Timbers side.
2. Benny Feilhaber was out of the starting XI against the Galaxy in what was refereed to as a "coach's decision" before the match only to come on in the second half and play his best soccer in weeks. All this came after Feilhaber was a regular part of the MVP talk for much of the early season but had been middling at best recently. What is up with Benny? Was his benching warranted and will we see him make a return on for the playoffs?
TBT: If there has been something up with Benny, it has been behind the scenes. After the match, Vermes said it was a matter of fitness claiming he did not think Benny was 90 minutes fit. That being said, PV has shown he will not hesitate in benching a player he thinks is not performing at his potential. While Feilhaber had by no means been playing poorly, this very well could have been something to fire up and inspire his most important player. Dwyer summed it up nicely after the match when Vermes fielded that very first question. "It worked," Dom said. When he came on, it was crystal clear that Benny is the most important player for SKC. The whole team looked more confident and creative. He is the magic in this team going forward.
Yes, Benny will be good to go on Thursday. He is really pumped up and ready to find another gear. He left us with this after the match. "I like to think there is a playoff Benny as well."
3. The Timbers have been in rampant goal-scoring form in the last two games, getting over a fifth of their goals for the 2015 season in those matches. In the team's three matches against SKC, however, the Timbers have been shut out three times. What have you seen from SKC that let them shut the Timbers down and will they be able to do for a fourth time on Thursday?
TBT: Earlier in the season, I think it was a matter of two solid teams unable to find a breakthough against each other. Both teams play smart defense and were pretty evenly matched. That, and Tim Melia has bailed this team out (especially against Portland) more times than anyone can count.
Most recently, KC was again forced into a very weird lineup. Vermes trotted out a front three consisting entirely of back-ups and even lacking a real striker. It was just a few days after playing 120 minutes plus PK's to win the Open Cup, so legs were tired. Because of this, I don't think anyone would deny SKC went into a very defensive mindset playing in Portland. After his team did the job in keeping the game close, Vermes was able to bring on starters to try and steal points. But as you mentioned, this time around Portland is in great offensive form. PLUS, the SKC defense has made some terrible, awful, embarrassing mistakes/giveaways the last couple weeks.
So Sporting KC will probably again come out in a defensive mindset to open the game, but no, I'm not expecting another shutout going into Providence Park. The starting lineup will be as full strength as Vermes has been able to do all season, they are coming off a big win against LA, and Krisztian Nemeth should be extra confident against the Timbers defense. I'm thinking 0-0 through 90 minutes again is highly unlikely.
The Blue Testament Lineup and Score Predictions
(4-3-3) Tim Melia, Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, Kevin Ellis, Chance Myers, Soni Mustivar, Paulo Nagamura, Benny Feilhaber, Kristztian Nemeth, Dom Dwyer, Graham Zusi
Sporting Kansas City 2 - 1 Portland Timbers FC
We ask them...
1) The Timbers spent much of the season struggling for offensive output and were near the bottom of MLS in goals scored. However, they have scored ten of the team's total 41 goals in the last three matches. What has been the difference in this recent run of form?
Stumptown Footy: The Timbers ay have been near the bottom of the league in goals scored, but they were near the top in chances created for the breadth of the season. For some reason, however, those chances just would not fall for everyone not named Fanendo Adi -- and even Adi, new holder of the MLS Timbers' single season scoring record, had his struggles throughout the year.
So, what has changed in recent matches? Well, a few things, actually.
First, Diego Valeri is back. The Maestro has been back for a bit, playing in 22 matches this season, but it is only in recent matches that he has started to reach the playmaking heights that he hit in 2013 and 2014. This has had a cascading effect on the rest of the team. As Valeri has stepped up, the rest of the team has responded in kind, making better runs, combining better, and just generally playing at a higher level to take advantage of what he brings to the game.
Second, Lucas Melano has adjusted to the team. The Timbers' new Argentine designated player still has plenty of improving to do, but in recent matches the Timbers have figured out how to use him in a much more coherent way than simply sticking him on the wing and letting him run quickly. In recent matches Melano has been put in a position to reveal some of the playmaking aspects to his game, playing an integral role in five of those ten goals that everyone is talking about.
And finally, the Timbers have simply had their backs up against the wall. Following the team's 1-0 loss to SKC, the Timbers needed to make something happen if they wanted to still have a chance at the playoffs. Any more dropped points would see the San Jose Earthquakes pass them up (the Earthquakes, people!), so the Timbers stepped up, taking all nine points in three games, including a road win against the LA Galaxy in what everyone agreed was an impenetrable StubHub Center.
2) Matches between these two teams have been evenly matched with only one goal scored in 3 matches. Last time game in Portland, the Timbers allowed SKC to hang around until the end of the match and then steal the victory with a moment of brilliance from Nemeth. After scoring more goals recently, could we see a more open match with the Timbers eager to get forward?
SF: This match seems destined to be a tightly fought, closely contested, packed in battle between two teams unwilling to give an inch. Among Timbers fans, Kansas City has a reputation as a bunkering, fouling, time wasting side that is going to play for a shootout and maybe kick Darlington Nagbe a few dozen times along the way.
Let's be fair; it isn't just Timbers fans who think that.
As far as the Timbers being eager to get forward, they certainly will be. That does not necessarily mean that things will be more open. In the last two matches between the two teams the Timbers have outshot SKC 17 to 8 and 18 to 8 respectively and, as we talked about in question one, something has changed for the Timbers: the shots that they are taking are suddenly actually going in the net.
With the team more confident and playing better than they have all year, the Timbers look set to get stuck in against SKC. An open game might make for an exciting match, but the Timbers seem confident that if they can double up Sporting on shots once again they should be able to get a goal or two (or five) this time around.
3) Soccer has a great history in Portland of course, but the Timbers have yet to win a trophy in MLS. What would a run to MLS Cup mean for The Timbers and the city of Portland? Is this the year?
SF: There is still plenty of distance between the Timbers and the MLS Cup, but there is a confidence surrounding the team right now that is infectious. Making proclamations about trophies is always a dangerous business, but at the very least you have to think that the Timbers have what it takes to beat anyone in the league, whether on the road or at home.
That being said, if the Timbers do manage to bring home the trophy, Portland might just burn to the ground. In a good way.
The Timbers, for all their popularity, have generally been good, but not necessarily great. The organization has previously won the league at the USL level, but so far MLS-level success has eluded the team, only even hoisting the Cascadia Cup (the trophy competed for between the Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Seattle Sounders) once in the five years since joining MLS.
The lack of trophies has not held the team back, certainly, as Portland is a town that loves its teams and the players therein fiercely. An MLS Cup win would cause people to spontaneously combust with joy.
Stumptown Footy Lineup Prediction:
Kwarasey; Villafana, Ridgewell, Borchers, Powell; Chara; Valeri, Nagbe; Melano, Adi, Wallace