Chicago on fire, but will be shorthanded, too, in showdown with Timbers
In an ideal world, the Portland Timbers would have their top lineup together for Wednesday's match against the MLS leaders.
But this being July in MLS, that won't be the case.
When the Chicago Fire visit Portland for a 7:30 p.m. match, both clubs will be without key players away with their national teams for the pending Gold Cup tournament.
Add in the inevitable injuries, and the Timbers will be down four regular starters and have only 17 players available when the Fire rolls into Providence Park.
Out because of injury for Portland are Liam Ridgewell, Diego Chara, Amobi Okugo and Jack Barmby.
Away with their national teams are David Guzman (Costa Rica), Alvas Powell (Jamaica) and Darren Mattocks (Jamaica).
Expect Zarek Valentin to start at right back while the rest of the lineup is the same as started Saturday's 1-1 draw at Sporting Kansas City — including the makeshift defensive midfield pairing of Darlington Nagbe and Ben Zemanski, who together turned in a strong performance in their first time paired together.
The Portland bench figures to include five field players: rookies Marco Farfan, Rennico Clarke, Victor Arboleda, Jeremy Ebobisse and recently injured defender Chance Myers.
The Timbers are winless in their last four MLS matches, dating to a home win over Dallas. They learned this week that Ridgewell will miss another six weeks or longer after re-injuring his quad in his first training session since leaving that June 10 Dallas match.
Coach Caleb Porter says he liked the way his team competed against Sporting Kansas City and believes the Timbers will be up for the challenge against the team atop all of MLS.
Unbeaten in its last 10 league matches, Chicago sports a league-best record of 11 wins, three losses and four draws. The 37 points are two more than Toronto FC.
"Best team in the league. And they're in the best form of any team in the league," Porter says, describing his shorthanded squad as underdogs on Wednesday.
Despite their recent rough patch, the Timbers (7-7-5, 26 points) are third in the Western Conference.
"We have quite a challenge. But I know I have a team that's up for a challenge. And I know they will relish and look forward to trying to knock off the best team in the league," Porter says.
Both teams played on Saturday. The Timbers waited to travel home from Kansas City so they could take a direct flight at 3 p.m. Sunday. That allowed the players to sleep in — because sleep is the No. 1 form of recovery, Porter explains — and to get in a gym workout ahead of the flight home.
"Those are little things you hope can help," Porter says of the travel decision.
It could also help the Timbers that the Fire are without Dax McCarty (United States) and David Accam (Ghana) for international duty. Accam has 10 goals for Chicago this season.
Portland fans also might not see German star Bastian Schweinsteiger. The 32-year-old midfielder joined Chicago early this season to much fanfare and has played like one of the best midfielders in the world (two goals, five assists in 15 games). He left Saturday's match in the first half with hip pain. Schweinsteiger later tweeted that the injury is not serious, but it might make sense for the Fire to rest Schweinsteiger instead of making the veteran fly to Portland to play on artificial turf.
One player the Timbers will need to deal with is the leading scorer in MLS.
Nemanja Nikolic has 16 goals in his first 18 MLS matches after putting in two during Saturday's 4-0 smashing of the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The Hungarian striker uses a combination of speed, skill and smarts to get into scoring position and is on pace to eclipse the MLS record for goals in a season (27).
"He's a poacher. He gets in good spots, and when he gets in a good spot he usually finishes," Porter says. "When you put him on a team like Chicago where they have a lot of really good people, players that will supply service to him, then he's going to have a lot of tap-in goals, goals within the 18-yard box. And a lot of them are one-touch."
Chicago is tied with Atlanta for the most goals through 18 games with 35. Portland's 32 goals lead the West.
Chicago is 9-0-1 at home, 2-3-3 away from Toyota Stadium.
Possession is a big part of the Fire formula under coach Veljko Paunovic.
Three of the goals against Vancouver came after more than 10 passes were strung together by the Fire. An 18-pass buildup led to one goal in the June 24 4-0 throttling of Orlando City.
"The coach deserves a lot of credit for getting them to keep the ball a lot," Porter says. "That for me brings out the talent in their team."