The Blues and Timbers clash for the only time this regular season tonight. New York City comes to Portland fresh off a tidy 2-0 victory over DC United; meanwhile, the Timbers are licking their wounds after losing back-to-back games to Vancouver and Dallas, both by 2-1 scores. They find themselves struggling in the West, sitting in ninth place with a 3-5-3 record and 12 points, one less than New York City.
The Blues will have a daunting task on their hands as they visit Providence Park. They've lost cornerstone defending midfielder Federico Bravo to yellow card accumulation, and midfielder Mikey Lopez is on the brink of suspension as well; if he gets a yellow card in Sunday's game, he'll be suspended for Wednesday's tilt against Toronto FC. Providence Park is always an intimidating place to play, and Sunday will be no different.
That means manager Patrick Vieira will be shuffling the lineup a bit. Given that the Blues will be playing on turf, it's likely that Andrea Pirlo will be sitting this game out. We also need to consider that New York City will be dashing back east for a Wednesday road game against Toronto, before taking on the Red Bulls in the Hudson River Derby on Saturday.
For that reason, I expect both Kwadwo Poku and Mix Diskerud to start Sunday's game against Portland. I think Vieira sticks with his standard 4-3-3, but Lopez moves down to be a defensive anchor in the midfield. Diskerud moves into Lopez's position on the right midfield, whilst Poku takes Pirlo's spot. That doesn't necessarily mean that they'll be replicating those roles; I think Diskerud takes on a more creative role, whilst Poku will act almost as a secondary striker, using his speed and strength to drive at Portland's defense.
If New York City are going to win tonight, captain and talisman David Villa will be instrumental. Villa scored his third goal in the last two matches against DC last Sunday, putting the Blues ahead scarce minutes after halftime. The Gotham defense remains worryingly over-dependent on Villa, though, so it's imperative that other players - like Khiry Shelton - become dependable scoring options.
For New York City's defense, stopping forward Fanendo Adi is obvious; but even more crucial will be foiling midfielder Diego Valeri, who's both a potent scoring threat and the creative linchpin for the Timbers. Vieira is fully aware of Portland's danger, despite their current struggles.
"Winning the last two games is really good for our mind," Vieira said in his pre-game statements to the club website. "It will be another tough, difficult match. We’re playing a team who won the league last year, who are not in their best period of the moment. But that means nothing."
Referee Hilario Grajeda will be officiating tonight's match. Despite joining the team briefly for full training this week, midfielder Frank Lampard will not be available for today's game. New York City will also be missing midfielders Connor Brandt and Jack Harrison as well.