D.C. United travels to one of the most intimidating atmospheres in all of MLS on Saturday when it visits JELD-WEN Field to take on the Portland Timbers (10:30pm ET, Comcast SportsNet). While Portland is the only team in MLS without a road win (0-11-4), the team has been solid – though not spectacular – at home, putting together a record of 7-4-4 and outscoring opponents 22-19.
The Timbers have been eliminated from playoff contention, but will be playing for pride and hoping to impress incoming Head Coach Caleb Porter, who will join the team full-time after completing the collegiate season at the University of Akron. An offseason overhaul seems likely and, with jobs on the line, D.C. can expect Timbers’ players will come out flying.
“Whether it’s [Franck] Songo’o or [Darlington] Nagbe, [Sal] Zizzo, who’s created a lot of havoc on that right side, or [Bright] Dike, they’ve got real weapons,” said Head Coach Ben Olsen of the challenge that awaits his team across the country. “They interchange, they’re hard to follow, they’re not afraid to take chances. We’ve got to keep alert, a lot of communication, [keep our] heads on a swivel.”
Though Portland has scored just 28 goals this season – tied for 3rd fewest in MLS – 22 of those tallies have come at home. Buoyed by Timbers Army, and one of the smallest fields in the League, JELD-WEN Field is not an easy place for any team to get a result.
“As a player, even though we’re the visiting team, it’s fun to play in that environment,” said midfielder Perry Kitchen, who scored his first professional goal in D.C.’s 3-2 win in Portland last season. “It’s going to be tough to communicate. I remember last year, a guy is ten yards away from you – you can yell, but he’s not going to hear you. It’s going to be tough to play, but we’re going to try to take the crowd out of it by either not allowing a goal or scoring a goal.”
Portland’s leading goal-scorer, Kris Boyd (seven goals), is now likely to miss the rest of the season with a groin injury. In his absence, the most dangerous threats facing D.C. are second-year player Nagbe (six goals) and Dike, who has scored three goals in the team’s last seven games after being largely unused for most of the campaign.
“We’ve got to keep them in front of us, that’s what we’ve been doing well the last three games,” said defender Dejan Jakovic. “We haven’t let anyone get in behind us. These are good players in Portland – athletic players, fast players, but it’s also not a big field. I think it would be great if we could go out there and steal three points again.”
Coming off two straight shutouts over Philadelphia and Chivas USA, United’s back four will need to limit time and space – something made easier by the small field at JELD-WEN.
“Especially in Portland, we’ve got to be a unit, that’s how we won there last year,” said midfielder Chris Pontius. “We’ve got to be, front to back, a unit. We’ve got to get ourselves around balls, pick up second balls. It’s not the easiest field to play on – it’s narrow – so we need to realize there’s a time to go big, we can’t [always] play short.”
The team’s outlook for full points on Saturday night improved slightly with the recent news that starting goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts – who was acquired from Montreal for Troy Perkins earlier in the year – would be sidelined for several weeks with a separated shoulder. Portland’s backup is 23-year old Joe Bendik, who has played just 236 minutes this season, and given up two goals in each of his first two starts.
Despite the injuries to key personnel and Portland’s inconsistent performances throughout the season, this is not a game D.C.’s side is taking lightly.
“I don’t think where they stand in the standings shows the type of team they are,” said Pontius “I’ve watched quite a few games and they do some very good stuff at times. They’ve been unlucky with some bounces, been unfortunate, and maybe they just don’t see out games as well as they should, but they’re a dangerous team and that’s how we’re treating them. It’s a tough place to play and we’re not looking past this game at all.”
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