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Sporting Kansas City vs. Portland Timbers: Three Questions with Stumptown Footy

Sporting KC returns to action Wednesday night in Portland after a much needed break. Peter Vermes' side will look to bounce back after losing three straight matches, but going into the tough environment of Providence Park against a quality Timbers side won't be easy. I got with Will Conwell over at Stumptown Footy to discuss the midweek clash.

Dom battles with Nat Borchers in the 0-0 draw with the Timbers all the way back in March.
Dom battles with Nat Borchers in the 0-0 draw with the Timbers all the way back in March.
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting KC are finally getting back on the pitch after over a week off. They look to put the last few matches behind them and get back to their winning ways. The guys travel to Portland for a midweek clash at Providence Park against the Timbers. I spoke with Will Conwell of the Portland SB Nation Blog, Stumptown Footy, about the match-up and what we can expect.

1) The Blue Testament: Head Coach Caleb Porter was fined this past week along with SKC's Peter Vermes. What did Caleb Porter say to get in trouble? It must have been at least in part, about the very weird play that led to a penalty for Obafemi Martins last week?

Will Conwell: There are two Caleb Porters who have the possibility of showing up to any given post-game interview: Professorial Caleb Porter or Intense Caleb Porter. Not surprisingly, after last week's loss to the Seattle Sounders, we got the latter.

Porter was unhappy about both Sounders goals, saying that there were several uncalled fouls on the way to the first Sounders goal as well as questioning the validity of the call for the penalty that lead to the second goal. Moreover, Porter told the press that the match was refereed inconsistently and that he could not tell what was a foul and what was not over the course of the match.

Now, those things alone might skate by without a fine, if they were phrased properly, but Porter was not in a properly phrasing sort of mood, saying that referee Alan Kelly "sleepwalked through" the match and was "very poor", a point he hit on several times throughout his comments.

2) TBT: The Timbers are sitting in 6th place, just two points above San Jose for the final playoff position. Will they be able to hold off the rest of the field as they wrap up the season? What is the ceiling for this team?

WC: Looking at the Timbers, even this far into the year, it is hard to get a grasp on what this team is capable of. If the Timbers can keep their decent defensive performances in line and somehow get the attack flowing even a little bit then this team should have no problem claiming a playoff spot and could even move up the ladder fairly quickly in the packed-in West.

Of course, if the Timbers don't start finding the back of the net with some of their conference-leading number of shots taken then things could go south quickly. For much of the year the Timbers have relied on their back line and midfield to keep them in games while the attack sputters. To that end, the Timbers lead the league with eleven shutouts in 27 matches, despite being roughly on par with the rest of the playoff group on goals allowed thanks to a series of horrendous road losses in June and July.

In 2013 and 2014, the Timbers were one of the most high scoring teams in the league, scoring 54 and 61 goals, respectively. In 2015 the Timbers have managed just 29 goals so far, putting them on pace to finish with less than two-thirds of the goals scored last year. Those goals over the last two years have come largely by committee, with six players scoring five goals or more in 2014 and five players scoring seven goals or more in 2013. In 2015, Fanendo Adi has been the team's only reliable goalscorer, notching ten so far while nobody else on the side has managed more than three.

3) TBT: There is always a fantastic environment in Portland, and they have only one loss at home all the way back in April. Does that credit belong to the crowd? Caleb Porter? How might a team come to town and steal all three points in Providence Park?

WC: Across the Western Conference this season, home field advantage has been a huge factor in team's approach to games and the Portland Timbers are no different. At home, the Timbers often seem able to find that extra bit of energy, either to break up an attack or get forward on one of their own.

Part of the credit for the Timbers' current home record of 7-1-5 certainly has to go to the atmosphere in Providence Park, both for how it can wear on the Timbers' opponents and how it energizes the team, but by far the larger factor seems to be how the Timbers approach games at home: looking to impose their will on opposing teams, control the ball, and get forward in the attack.

Teams that have done well in Portland seem to be those that are able to exploit the spaces that the Timbers leave open when the get forward into the attack, breaking down the flanks as the Timbers push their fullbacks up the field or finding space between the back line and holding midfielders. A good example of this came in the Timbers' last home match as the Houston Dynamo were able to repeatedly find space behind left back Jorge Villafana as he pushed up the pitch and managed to score a pair of goals before the Timbers were able to adjust properly at halftime and came back to tie the match.

Moreover, like in the Dynamo match, teams that are able to get off to a strong start in the first half of matches will fare well against the Timbers at home or on the road. The Timbers are very much a second half team, with a goal differential of -8 in the first half of matches this year and +5 in the second half. The Timbers have scored 14 of their 29 goals in the final fifteen minutes of matches this year.

Timbers Lineup Prediction:

Kwarasey; Villafana, Paparatto, Borchers, Peay; Fochive, Jewsbury; Melano, Valeri, Nagbe; Adi

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1. Stumptown Footy: Like the Timbers, maybe even more so, SKC comes into this match missing a number of players due to injury and international call ups. Who is missing, who are their replacements, what affect will that have on this SKC side?

Cody Bradley: It feels like that has been the case with this team for the past two seasons! To start, Ike Opara has been out most of the year with an Achilles injury. He was just returning from an injury to open the season and was playing so well, he was nominated for Player of the Month in March. The defense desperately need him back, and that day is coming. Roger Espinoza has been out for a month and has at least that long left before he is ready. Krisztian Nemeth was called up to the Hungarian National Team, and Marcel De Jong for Canada. Youngster Erik Palmer-Brown is with the U-20 National Team but THANKFULLY, Matt Besler returned from his USMNT call up. Now Sporting can actually play a real CB at CB for this Portland match.

Not having seen practice since last Friday, the rest is harder to tell. But it looked like Soni Mustivar, Jalil Anibaba, and Bernardo Anor were all back to fully training. But Amobi Okugo and Chance Myers are also on the injury report and may not be as far along.

That is a lot to work around, but this club has learned to deal with it. It is a very deep squad and with over a week of rest, Vermes' troops will be ready to go.

2. SF: After a strong mid-season run that saw SKC mentioned in the hunt for the Supporters' Shield, the team has fallen off drastically, suffering losses in each of their last three games, including a 5-0 demolition to the San Jose Earthquakes at home. What happened that put SKC into this current slide and is there any hope that they will be able to pull themselves out of it?

CB: The biggest factor had to be the stretch of 5 matches in 15 days. Players needing rest and nagging injuries piled up. Sporting lost Espinoza and Mustivar from the midfield, pushing Feilhaber back out of his attacking role. Just four days before that San Jose match, SKC had the most thrilling match of the season after a miraculous comeback to defeat the Whitecaps 4-3. I believe that took a toll on the team and left them emotionally drained.

After San Jose, if you were to listen to Peter Vermes... SKC haven't been losing but the 'guys in yellow' have been beating them. They lost to Columbus and Colorado by a goal each. Now it is true that both of those goals had bad missed calls, one of which had three itself. But the way the defense has been playing it is hard to say they deserved the points.

Yes, this team will come out of it. They are much better than the last three results, even with Kevin Ellis as CB and rookies at both fullback positions. Without him, we have now learned just how important Soni Mustivar is to the team; and also hopefully more people appreciate the work Espinoza has put in this season. They are still in a great spot with multiple games in hand on all the top teams. Hopefully with the long break, everyone has put themselves together and they can get back on track.

3. SF: Benny Feilhaber has been huge for SKC this season and is certain to be at least nominated as the league MVP. What has he brought to the team this year that maybe he didn't in years past and, for the Timbers' sake, what have teams been able to do in order to limit his influence on the game?

CB: When Benny arrived in 2013 from NE, he started for several games before being bumped. Peter Vermes' system required him to track back and cover more ground than he ever had. It took until the playoff run at the end of that season for him to become Sporting Fit and things to start clicking. Since those playoffs, Feilhaber has been one of the best players in MLS. Last year, as I mentioned, the team was hit with terrible injuries and international call ups. Vermes used a different lineup each of the first 20+ games. Benny was the only constant. He played brilliantly last year, but perhaps didn't have the talent around him that he does this year. With Espinoza and Mustivar behind him, and Nemeth/Dwyer/Zusi in front of him, he has been able to flourish this season.

He is a very, very passionate player. He is easily fired up. He can get frustrated when teams crash on him quickly and get in a tackle before he is able to create something. After a few hard tackles or clips of the ankles, he will be mad enough to make a bad tackle himself. He absolutely cannot be given any time on the ball to think, or he can carve a defense with one pass. What is good for the Timbers this match, is that Nemeth will be out along with Espinoza. The two of them are both dangerous players that normally attract defenses and give Benny a little more space on the ball. However, he is the kind of player that could be quiet most of a game but only needs a split second make an impact.

TBT Lineup and Score Predictions:

(4-3-3) Tim Melia, Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, Kevin Ellis, Amadou Dia, Soni Mustivar, Paulo Nagamura, Benny Feilhaber, Jacob Peterson, Dom Dwyer, Graham Zusi

Sporting KC 2 - 2 Portland Timbers