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MLS match preview: Portland Timbers at San Jose Earthquakes

Apr 21, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

San Jose Earthquakes v AIK - Portland Timbers Tournament Getty Images

Portland’s undergone so many changes since last year, it’s useless to leverage any past experience to prepare for Caleb Porter’s new-look Timbers. And since their style’s so different from any other team in Major League Soccer, opponents don’t have a deafult plan to contain that type of approach. In a league short on stylistic diversity, Porter’s possession-hogging style can catch opponents by surprise, particularly on first impression.

That’s a theory that has a flip side. If a pass-happy Portland is benefiting from opponents being caught off guard, they’re likely in for some regression the second time around the league. Once a team’s been exposed to the Timbers’ venom, they can start developing some resistance. Eventually, somebody will come up with an antidote. (Not that this metaphor doesn’t describe the entire history of soccer tactics.)

Sunday night, we’ll see if San Jose’s built any resistance. One week after falling at JELD-WEN Field, the Supporters’ Shield holders welcome the Timbers to Buck Shaw, the second of the team’s back-to-back meetings.

The first proved eventful, though not always for the right reasons. Setting aside Alan Gordon’s transgression, San Jose used their physicality to try and slow down the their hosts, a plan that may have worked were it not for Will Johnson’s game-winning, 78th minute direct kick. The 1-0 win was not only Portland’s second-straight victory; it extended San Jose’s winless run to three.

Now the Earthquakes, a team that’s only scored more than one goal in a game once this season, will be without Gordon (suspended for four games). They should also be without Jason Hernandez in central defense, though for a San Jose that’s had to deal with major injury concerns throughout the season, there is some good news. Marvin Chavez, last year’s team leader in assists, declared himself ready-to-go on Wednesday, while right back Steven Beitashour played 45 minutes in a reserve match on Monday. If both play, San Jose will be as healthy as they’ve been all season despite the absences of Gordon and Hernandez.

But the Earthquakes biggest advantage may have nothing to do with their squad and everything to do with where Sunday’s game will be played. Through their first two-plus years in the league, Portland has only won three road games, a terrible “success rate” that’s yet to change under Porter. While the Timbers have drawn both their road games this season (at Seattle and at Colorado), they fell behind each time, giving up early goals in matches then never led. With Portland employing noticeably different approaches in their two road games (compared to what they’ve done at home), Porter’s yet to show this team can shake their Jekyll and Hyde ways.

The return of Diego Valeri might help. The Timbers’ Argentine playmaker missed last Sunday’s game. Portland elected to exercise caution while adhering to concussion protocol. This week, Valeri’s set to return, an addition which could help the Timbers convert their possession advantage (64.7 percent last week) into more shots on goal (only two).

For San Jose, Gordon’s absence could be a blessing in disguise. While it goes limit Frank Yallop’s options at forward, it almost assures the Earthquakes will play Chris Wondolowski up top, something that didn’t happen in Portland. At JELD-WEN, Yallop elected to use “Wondo” at right midfield while starting Gordon and Steven Lenhart at forward, a deployment that limited Wondolowski’s influence. With Chavez back a Gordon out, Wondolowski should return to the forward role that allowed him to win last year’s Most Valuable Player award.

Regardless of who starts, San Jose will need to come up with another way to slow down Portland. Last week, the Timbers responded to being roughed up, and given Yallop’s tactical preferences, we’re unlikely to see the kind of formation change that would help offset the Timbers’ advantages through the middle.

San Jose needs a new trick, but whatever approach Yallop employs, its success will likely hinge on the simplest thing: Can the San Jose’s team just play better?

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