More than tactics or skill, the emotional state of the Portland Timbers will determine whether the winless club can beat Chivas USA when the two teams meet Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Providence Park.
On an emotional level, last week's 4-4 draw with the Seattle Sounders on April 5 felt worse than a loss, because it came suddenly just as the Timbers (0-2-3, 3 points) rediscovered the poetry and fluency that had up until then been sorely missing in their football this season.
Portland had come out after halftime and, pass by pass, seized the initiative from Seattle. By the hour mark, midfielders Diego CharÃ¡, Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan were gliding past defenders at will.
But the team's collapse in the final minutes â led by Seattle midfielder Clint Dempsey â leaves a bitter taste. Dempsey for the first time since signing for Seattle last year didn't look out of place, and the US national team captain finished his hat trick with a double in the last five minutes as the Timbers' back line unraveled.
After such a defeat, teams react differently. Some are still so shocked a week later that they sleepwalk their way through the next match, too nervous to open up their play. Others charge into the next match with a point to prove and trample over their opponents in the process. The Chivas USA game could be a vital signpost in the Timbers' early season, a last chance to build some momentum before Portland spends the rest of the month on the road.
Make no mistake, the Timbers should beat Chivas (1-2-2, 5 points) if they hit the same level of attacking play they did last week. Chivas has no owner, no fans, and is so unmarketable they have to pay a local station to televise their games. Still, Chivas has its most interesting team in years. Striker Cubo Torres is the latest in a long line of highly touted Mexican national team players to sign for Chivas USA, but he's the first one to live up to his billing. He has scored four in his first five games in MLS, although three were penalty kicks (a vulnerability for Portland this season). His speed and movement will be a handful for the Timbers' defense. Chivas USA also signed skilfull ex-Sounders midfielder Mauro Rosales and former US national team captain Carlos Bocanegra in the off season, and both have made their experience felt.
But Chivas overall shouldn't have enough to overwhelm the Timbers man-for-man. Last week, the offensive fluidity that garnered the Timbers so many plaudits returned. Timbers Coach Caleb Porter brought Alhassan and defender Alvas Powell in on the right side of the team for their first starts this season. Their speed and the directness of their approach up the flank brought balance to the team.
Usually Michael Harrington's running on the left forces teams to stretch their defenses to cover him and create space elsewhere. Powell in particular forced Seattle to do so on the other flank as well. He and Alhassan could face a familiar opponent on the left side of the Chivas USA defense.
Ex-Timber Andrew Jean-Baptiste got his first start for Chivas USA in their 3-0 defeat to the Los Angeles Galaxy last week. The Timbers traded the right-footed center back for midfielder Jorge VillafaÃ±a in the off season and they have missed the promising young defender. He was one of three center backs who left the club before the 2014 campaign, with only Norberto Paparatto coming in; Paparatto has yet to find his feet completely. Paparatto and fellow center back Pa Modou Kah will be more exposed against Torres and the rest of the Chivas USA attack â that is, if the Timbers don't find the emotional fortitude to pick themselves off the turf and control the game like they have so many times in the past.