It’s another short turnaround for the Portland Timbers, who, after beating Vancouver 3-1 on Saturday, will return to action tonight with a chance to jump back into the Western Conference playoff places as they face the Chicago Fire at Providence Park (8 p.m., TV on ROOT Sports).
It’s been another difficult season in Bridgeview, where the Fire have underperformed in front of the worst home crowds in the league. Veljko Paunovic’s team currently sits in tenth place in the Eastern Conference, having made the playoffs just once in the last six years.
This year’s team, both on paper and per their underlying numbers, should be in the postseason mix. Despite the fact that they’re averaging barely more than a point per game, the Fire actually have a positive goal differential — the sixth best in the East, 12 goals better than seventh-placed Montreal.
There’s plenty of talent around, especially in the midfield and attack. But the Fire’s finishing has been poor, their late-game defending worse, and the number of points they’ve dropped while playing well has taken its toll.
Big changes are likely around the corner. The Fire have an older core, which they added to in the recently-closed transfer window with the acquisition of 34-year-old former U.S. national team right back Jonathan Bornstein, and a move out of Bridgeview back to Soldier Field is in the offing as well. If this team wants to make a run, it has to happen now.
The Fire played over the weekend against the Impact and will be back at home on Saturday to face Philadelphia, so expect Paunovic to rotate his team tonight.
That may well mean no Bastian Schweinsteiger or Dax McCarty, but the big question facing Paunovic is tactical: the Fire are significantly better going forward than they are defensively, but teams who have come to Portland and played progressively have fared far worse this year than teams who have sat in.
The blueprint calls for bunkering and playing on the counter. Does Paunovic feel that he has the personnel to deploy that strategy? We should get an idea fairly early in the game, but this may be a far more open match than the game against Vancouver on Saturday was.
The Timbers also big weekend game against Atlanta to look forward to, but that match isn’t until Sunday, and there’s no travel involved. Those factors, plus the rotation against the ‘Caps, means that we should see a relatively strong Portland team.
Giovani Savarese will have to figure out to what extent he wants to reward the young players who did so much to win the Vancouver game — from Marvin Loría to Renzo Zambrano to even Tomás Conechny –- while managing minutes ahead of Atlanta’s visit.
The referee will be Canadian Silviu Petrescu, who has handled only nine games so far this year and has rarely been among the league’s better officials.
12 – Clark
4 – Villafaña
18 – Cascante
33 – Mabiala
2 – Moreira
21 – Chara
22 – Paredes
40 – Loría
8 – Valeri (C)
17 – Ebobisse
7 – Fernandez
— Brian Fernandez was held out of Saturday’s game against Vancouver as a precaution, and every indication is that he’ll be available tonight.
— Sebastian Blanco started all three games last week, and may be due for a day off. Marvin Loría, given his performance against Vancouver, is more than deserving of another start.
— Larrys Mabiala and Jorge Moreria will both be back after resting against the Whitecaps, the big question is who starts alongside Mabiala at center back. Neither Julio Cascante nor Bill Tuiloma were all that convincing on Saturday.
— Andy Polo hasn’t made a matchday squad since he reacted angrily to be substituted against Orlando back in mid-July. We’ll see how much longer he’s in the doghouse.
The Timbers have never lost against the Fire, riding a nine-game unbeaten streak against the club that dates back to 2011. The last meeting in Portland, two years ago, finished 2-2.
Another good night for the Timbers. Portland 3, Chicago 1.