PORTLAND, Ore. – There’s no question, the Portland Timbers aren’t where they’d like to be heading into their biggest match of the young season.
Having lost two straight games for the first time since July of 2012 to get off the franchise’s worst start in its MLS era, last fall’s run to the Western Conference Championship feels like ages ago.
Adding injury to insult, the Timbers could potentially face their biggest rivals, the Seattle Sounders – a team they posted a 3-1-1 record against last year that included victories in both legs of the Conference Semifinals – in Saturday’s nationally televised matinee at Providence Park (3 pm ET; NBCSN, free stream on NBCSports.com), without two of their most important players.
Out for certain is Donovan Ricketts, the reigning Goalkeeper of the Year, who is serving the second of a two-game suspension. But Portland will also likely be without the services of forward Darlington Nagbe, who left last Saturday’s game against FC Dallas at halftime with what head coach Caleb Porter simply called a “knock.”
The team’s training sessions leading up to Saturday’s game, the first of three scheduled meetings between the Cascadia foes this season, have been completely closed, and Porter said Friday that Nagbe is a game-time decision.
But the signs aren’t good.
“It’s always tough when you’re missing a guy like that, a special player, a guy who has been in the lineup consistently for some time,” Timbers captain Will Johnson said after Friday’s training session at Providence Park.
“It’s not easy to replace, so it’s up to the guys who come in to kind of take that personally, and say, ‘Here’s an opportunity for me as a professional player in a big game on a big stage to come in and make a name for yourself.’”
Nagbe, who scored nine goals and recorded four assists last year, has started in 52 straight matches and has been healthy and available for 72 straight.
An obvious replacement would be former Sounder Steve Zakuani, but he was left off the 18 last weekend due to what Porter called “tightness,” meaning a likely combination at the three forward spots would be Kalif Alhassan and Gaston Fernandez on the outside and either Maximiliano Urruti or Federico Piquionne up top.
“Whoever comes in tomorrow and gets a chance to play has a fantastic opportunity on one of the biggest platforms that you can possibly imagine,” Johnson said. “So it’s kind of embracing that pressure.”
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One newcomer stepping into a key role will be goalkeeper Andrew Weber, who got his first start in a Timbers shirt last weekend after coming on as a substitute two weeks ago against the Colorado Rapids when Ricketts was sent off for a reckless challenge. But Weber is certainly no stranger to the Timbers-Sounders rivalry.
The seven-year MLS veteran started in goal for the Sounders against the Timbers at Providence Park on June 24, 2012, a 2-1 Portland win, and was on the bench for three games against Portland last year for Seattle.
He said outside the added buzz generated by any big rivalry, it’s just like any other game.
“Don’t chase it, but just play the game and enjoy the moment,” he said.
He also said after a full preseason with the Timbers and being on the field in the last two games, the chemistry with the rest of the group is beginning to come around.
“I’m bringing my attributes to the field,” Weber said. “And I think the guys feel comfortable with me there, and that’s the reason Caleb and company brought me here, to be a strong character. So again, it’s just stepping in and doing my job and keeping everyone organized and, again, being in the moment.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.