Wounded animal? Portland Timbers realize Rapids are short-handed, but still dangerous

PORTLAND, Ore. – One would think that the Colorado Rapids’ lineup-turned-infirmary would give the Portland Timbers added confidence for Saturday’s game between the two sides at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

Due to injuries and a suspension, the Rapids are expected to be without a whopping seven starters for Saturday’s key matchup between two Western Conference sides looking for their first win (6 pm ET, Univision Deportes, watch on MLS Live). For Timbers captain Will Johnson, however, the absent starters merely means more uncertainty.

"I’ve been in this league so long; I think anytime you play any team it’s difficult to win,” Johnson said after the team’s final training session Friday at JELD-WEN Field before departing for Denver later in the day. “And sometimes when teams have an array of injuries it actually makes it more difficult because there’s a lot more unknown. Guys that we play against every year are known quantities, and you know what you’re going to get.

"But now you’re going in there with a bunch of guys who are fighting for jobs and have got this opportunity to make a statement within the league in a first-team game instead of a reserve-team game. On some levels, I think it makes this game a little more difficult for us.”

MLS Match Preview: Colorado Rapids vs. Portland Timbers

The most glaring absences for the Rapids, taking into account Portland’s attacking style under new head coach Caleb Porter, are starting center backs Diego Calderón (knee surgery) and Drew Moor (two-game suspension), as well as goalkeeper Matt Pickens. There will most certainly be a handful of youngsters scattered throughout the Rapids XI.

“Young guys always have a lot of energy, they’re reckless at times but that recklessness can be good and they can make some statements and make some plays just by sheer enthusiasm and youth,” Johnson said. “Sometimes that can go a long ways.”

No matter who is on the pitch, both teams will be desperate for a result. Portland are sitting on 0-2-1 record to open the season and are facing their longtime concern of playing on the road, where they didn’t win last year until October 21.

“I think this team is suited to play well on the road, it’s a tough group of guys, obviously one that has taken a few knocks so far this season,” Johnson said. “We need to go in there positive and keep building on what we’re trying to build here, and obviously we need to start picking up points along the way to make sure we don’t fall behind the pack too much.”

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But just because the Rapids will trot out a patchwork lineup, don’t expect Porter to put the pedal to the medal. He said his team’s wide-open style in the first two games of the season – a 3-3 draw with New York and a 2-1 loss to Montreal – left their entirely new back line vulnerable.

“In some ways I think we’re a bit opened up because we’re getting too many numbers forward,” Porter said. “So we really talked about keeping our shape and balance early in games until the opponent softens up and we get a grip on the game.”

Portland may be looking at a lineup decision of their own as well with the status of forward Darlington Nagbe uncertain. He’s been nursing a sprained ankle suffered March 16 against Seattle, and Porter said he’ll be a “game-time decision.” Porter said he’s been happy with the progress of newly signed striker Frédéric Piquionne and said José Valencia or Kalif Alhassan are ready to fill in should the need arise.

“I really like our depth there,” Porter said.

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.