Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Portland Timbers: A defining Cascadia meeting
Round two of 2016’s Cascadia Cup.
Both the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps may be ‘below the line’ in the Western Conference, but any time two of the Pacific Northwest’s rivals meet, a different set of standings comes into focus. After one game in this year’s Cascadia Cup series, Vancouver has an early edge on the field, having handed Cup-holding Seattle a 2-1 loss at CenturyLink Field in the third week of the season. Win on Saturday at BC Place, and Vancouver will be in the driver’s seat for this year’s Cup.
Since the Timbers and Whitecaps joined MLS in 2011, the Cascadia Cup’s winner has averaged 10 points (each team plays six games against the others, total). The average number of points needed to finish above second place has been 8.8. If Vancouver is on six after two rounds, four points in its last four Cascadia matches should clinch the Cup.
Unfortunately for the Whitecaps (3-5-3), a win would also constitute a change in form. Vancouver has won only one of its last six games, has been shut out three times in that span, and has conceded 12 times in its last five matches. There are some signs of hope, like the team’s win over FC Dallas (3-0, April 23) or its draw with 10 men against Sporting KC (1-1, April 27), but for a team that finished second in the conference during 2015’s regular season, losses at D.C. United and New York City FC are worrisome.
Portland (3-3-3), on the other hand, has seven points in its last three games, and while Sunday’s 2-1 win over Toronto required some late Diego Valeri heroics, it also continued the team’s turnaround. On April 13, Portland lost at home to Dallas, 3-1, 10 days after dropping a 4-1 result in Orlando. Since then, Darlington Nagbe and Liam Ridgewell have returned from injuries, Valeri came back from a one-game suspension, and the team’s leaky defense returned to normal. After conceding 13 times in their first six games, the Timbers have allowed three goals during their recent run.
Vancouver’s been riddled with injuries through most of the spring, but with Pedro Morales and Russell Teibert recently returning in midfield, and Pah Modou Kah back as the understudy in central defense, Carl Robinson’s team is as healthy as it has been since March.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean things are perfect in Vancouver. Octavio Rivero, scorer of his team’s first goal Saturday in New York, is a doubt with an ankle issue, one that’s kept him out of practice most of the week. Defender Christian Dean, hobbled all season with a left foot injury, remains out, while Kekuta Manneh, often the team’s most dangerous attacker, will sit out Saturday’s derby after being handed a one-game suspension by MLS’ Disciplinary Committee.
For Portland, first-choice goalkeeper Adam Kwarsey continues to recover from a torn finger ligament, while Jamaican right back Alvas Powell is sidelined with a wrist injury. Beyond the back five, though, Caleb Porter will have his first choices available, with the battle at left wing between former Whitecap Darren Mattocks and incumbent Dairon Asprilla providing the biggest question mark before Saturday’s kickoff.
Player to watch: Liam Ridgewell
When he arrived in Portland halfway through the 2014 season, Ridgewell’s seven-figure salary looked extravagant, particularly for a player failed to stand out at left or center back during his time in England. He wasn’t bad during long spells with West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City, but he also didn’t strike you as a million-dollar man in Major League Soccer.
Portland, however, saw something they desperately needed: a versatile, quick defender who could marshal a defense that had struggled desperately during Caleb Porter’s second season. Now, 49 games into an MLS career that’s seen him earn his team’s armband, nobody is doubting Ridgewell’s value.
In the four matches Ridgewell’s started this season, Portland has allowed four goals – exactly one goal in each game. In the five games he missed with a thigh injury, Portland conceded 12 times.
"I felt like today, we were closer to being more of the team we want to be …” Porter said after Sunday’s win over Toronto, calling the Timbers “more of a balanced team on both sides of the ball."
Undoubtedly, that’s true. The results speak for themselves, even if the number of good chances Toronto generated should be worrisome. But with Fanendo Adi scoring goals and MLS Player of the Week Jake Gleeson preventing them, Porter is right to think his team’s headed in the right direction; at least, compared to a month ago.
For Carl Robinson, Saturday’s game is a high-stakes affair. While the anticipation has allowed him to lean on some trusty clichés (“Derby games aren’t about all the quality in the world.”), a loss would compound growing uncertainty. Not only would the Whitecaps be slumping, but they’d be losing ground to one of their rivals – the one that eliminated them from last year’s playoffs.
“They were MLS Cup champs last year and they knocked us out in our own backyard, which is never nice,” Robinson reminded reporters mid-week. “We’ve got to be up for a fight.”
Facts and figures
- Counting postseason play, Vancouver has won only two its 16 all-time MLS meetings against the Timbers (2-7-7).
- Portland is looking to avoid its first five-game road winless streak in regular-season play since failing to win in nine consecutive matches in 2013.
- Adi (4) and Valeri (2) have combined to score six of the team’s seven goals against Vancouver in the team’s last six meetings.
The first goal could be crucial. As Portland reminded us last Wednesday in New England, it’s not above being practical on the road – employing a conservative approach that leads to low-scoring games. Likewise, even at home, Vancouver will to sit deep and let teams control games, provided they get on the board first.
With Adi and Valeri playing well and Vancouver potentially missing two of its best attackers, the smart bet seems to be Portland. If they can avoid gifting the Whitecaps penalties, the Timbers should come away with a 1-0 result.
Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.