Fresh off their first victory of the season, the Portland Timbers will face a severe test on Sunday: arguably the league's most talented side, the LA Galaxy.
Like Portland, the Galaxy was eliminated in the playoffs last year by Real Salt Lake. Coach Bruce Arena appears to have reacted to the setback by remodeling his team in the image of the team from Sandy, Utah.
In terms of the standings, LA (2-2-2, 8 points) doesn't look that different than Portland (1-3-5, 8 points) until you see LA has played two fewer games. Still, their record doesn't reflect their potential.
LA's results has become a side far more based in ball possession. The team spends more time on the ball than it did last year. Its passes are far more accurate. It shoots far more than any other team in the league.
Gone are the days of the flat midfield Arena used to get the best out of now-retired David Beckham. He has adopted RSL's diamond midfield. Beckham's ex-sidekick, Juninho, sets the tempo with unhurried passes from the back of the diamond.
Two new signings from the Swedish league play key roles: Baggio Husidic's technique links defense with attack, while Stefan Ishizaki fashions goal-scoring opportunities from behind the attackers.
Given that Portland matches up so poorly against Real Salt Lake, seeing LA playing the same system could be nightmare. Juninho has become the most precise passer in the league, and Husidic isn't far behind. If RSL’s Devon Sandoval can so bedevil the Timbers' backline for Real Salt Lake, what will happen when household names Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan are playing the same system?
The diamond midfield will cause the Timbers problems. Midfielders Diego Chara and Will Johnson will need to be vigilant in front of the defense, but the Timbers' best strategy is probably to spend more time attacking than defending. If Juninho has to protect his defense, he won't have the time to pick out passes.
To do that, Portland will need to wrestle control of the ball from a team that is becoming increasingly confident in its ability to keep a hold of it. Portland started the season out with an eight-game winless streak and increasingly played like a team full of nervous wrecks.
Last week’s 3-2 victory over DC United showed a team that seemed able to settle down. The intensity of the Timbers' celebrations after Maxi Urruti struck the ball home suggested intense release. The Timbers will probably put out the same lineup on Saturday that beat DC, but the emotional alignment will be totally different.