A month ago, things looked so hopeless for the Portland Timbers that I was penning what felt like a premature eulogy for their season. Eight winless games into 2014, the Timbers' post-season possibilities looked somewhere between remote and hopeless.
But the Timbers spent May turning their fortunes around, playing five games without losing one and notching two big road wins against the New York Red Bulls and Chivas USA. Portland could vault into playoff position if the team can beat the Vancouver Whitecaps at Providence Park Sunday evening.
Where the Timbers were once frustrated before the goal in March and April, they now have three strikers in rampant form. After looking worryingly thin at other positions, they have given seven players their first starts of the campaign this month and all have passed the test. Indeed, coach Caleb Porter's conundrum on Sunday will be which in-form players to leave on the bench.
Up front the selection problem is particularly acute. Maxi Urruti looked so hapless in front of goal in the early spring that captain Will Johnson publicly criticized him after the Timbers' loss to Real Salt Lake. In May, he scored four goals in four games, including a match-winning double against New York in his last game.
Porter rested him against Chivas USA in midweek, bringing in new signing Fanendo Adi for his first start. Adi responded by scoring both goals in a 2-0 win. Though Adi is 6-foot-4, both goals were the result of deft footwork rather than aerial power. It's obvious, though, that the Nigerian striker on loan from Copenhagen gives the Timbers attack an aerial dimension. He registered a crucial headed assist in the Timbers' May 18 draw with the Columbus Crew. That assist was for the Timbers' third striker, Gaston Fernandez, co-top scorer with Urruti. Having all three means Porter can be confident he has options on the bench.
It's all the more remarkable that the Timbers have started to do well now that attrition is really biting on the squad. Midfield lynchpin Diego Chara and starting defenders Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury have all spent significant time out injured, while backup defender Alvas Powell's suspension for two games forced the Timbers to sign veteran free agent Danny O'Rourke last week.
Porter has discovered in their absence that players he'd previously stashed on the bench are up to scratch: Jorge Villafana, Ben Zemanski, Rauwshan McKenzie and Michael Nanchoff got their first starts of the season.
The Whitecaps' May has been as profitable as Portland's. They beat the San Jose Earthquakes and Columbus before drawing with the league-leading Seattle Sounders. The Whitecaps are built around the central midfield pairing of Matias Laba and Gershon Koffie. Each is tough and combative, more a spoiler than a creator. They will look to harry Portland midfielder Diego Valeri, Portland's key spark of goals. Laba and Koffie screen an equally tough defensive pair: American Jay DeMerit and Irishman Andy O'Brien, both veterans of English soccer. Chilean Pedro Morales has become the creative force for the Caps.
The game on Sunday will be a clash of styles: the Timbers' finesse versus the determination of the Whitecaps. It might be a game for Adi. Generally, pacy strikers such as Urruti push defenses back to neutralize the threat of speed, while tall players tempt them to step farther up to prevent balls into the penalty area. Adi's height, then, could create space behind the Caps' aging and creaky backline for such speedy attacking midfielders as Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan to break into.
There's one more quick attacking midfielder for Timbers fans to think of too: Rodney Wallace, a starter on the left last season, appeared on the bench against Chivas USA on Wednesday. He has been out all season with a knee injury and Portland has missed his directness and power. If Wallace can recapture the form of old against the Whitecaps, Portland's playoff dreams might be truly revived.