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On Soccer/By Paul Danzer/Portland Tribune/Portland's playoff hopes depend a lot on healthy defenders

The Portland Timbers expected to gain more than nine points from the first five of 10 straight games at home.

They probably thought they would be pushing for home field playoff position instead of sitting one spot out of the MLS playoffs.

Still, the Timbers (12-11-4) are only two points back of the shaky Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference, and only four points from playing host to a first-round playoff game and just six points out of second place. And the schedule remains their friend.

Next in a string of meaningful matches is a 7:30 p.m. Saturday visit from a Sporting Kansas City team that has become a playoff threat with three consecutive wins.

With a win, Sporting would tie the Timbers for eighth. A Timbers triumph would put six points between the teams and could lift Portland as high as fifth.

The latest projections from Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight.com website give the Timbers an 84-percent chance of making the playoffs. Seattle, at 96 percent, has the best odds among teams fighting for the six Western spots below Los Angeles FC.

The big advantage for the Timbers is they play as many home games (six) as any of their rivals play in total.

FC Dallas (two home, three away) and San Jose (two home, four away) have particularly challenging runs to the finish line.

The Timbers likely need to improve on their 1.82 points earned through 11 home games to climb high enough to host a playoff match (top four). If Portland maintains its pace at home, that would mean three wins, two draws and one loss for 11 points from the remaining dates at Providence Park.

That gets Portland to 51 points, with anything additional from their one road game at Sporting KC a bonus. Given the number of times playoff contenders face one another, 51 points probably gets the Timbers into the playoffs, but does not earn them a home game.

Odds aside, Portland must get defenders healthy, particularly Larrys Mabiala. And the Timbers will need Sebastian Blanco (no goals or assists in the last four games), Brian Fernandez (scoreless in five of his last six games) and Jeremy Ebobisse (three goals in the last 13 games and scoreless in the last four) to regain their mojo.

The Timbers also need the fight they had in last week's 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake. After consecutive losses to Atlanta and Seattle, in which Portland won 93 duels for possession and lost 116, the Timbers won 48 of 90 duels against Real Salt Lake.

In a one-goal game, any duel can turn the result. The commitment the Timbers showed was encouraging in what coach Giovanni Savarese called an "emergency" scenario because he had no defenders available on the bench.

The only two healthy center backs — Bill Tuiloma and Claude Dielna — produced a smart performance, and outside backs Jorge Villafana and Jorge Moreira were excellent. It still took a couple big saves from Steve Clark to secure the win, but producing a shutout under the circumstances should buoy confidence.

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@pauldanzer


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