It is crunch time for Vancouver Whitecaps. With six matches remaining the 'Caps currently hold the fifth and final playoff spot in Major League Soccer's Western Conference - but Vancouver's postseason chances could look very different by Saturday night.
In what will be their biggest game of the season so far, the Whitecaps head to Portland to face a Timbers side that sits just one point and one lace below them in the West (Saturday at 5pm et/2pm pt live on TSN).
The Whitecaps haven't won enough games recently – just two in their last 12 – but at least they have started scoring again. Vancouver went four games without a goal before beating San Jose at home last week, then losing 2-1 at FC Dallas on Saturday. There were plenty of positives to draw from their performance at Dallas, but it's now eight matches without a win away from home for the Caps, dating back to their 4-3 triumph at Portland on June 1.
With three home games remaining and three on the road, whether the 'Caps make the playoffs will likely depend on how many points they can pick up at BC Place from games against Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids, but if they can avoid defeat in Portland it would give their hopes a massive boost.
Like the Whitecaps, the Portland Timbers haven't been consistent enough through the summer months. They come into this match unbeaten in their last three matches, but have only won four games since the World Cup break and have dropped points at home in their last two with a 4-2 defeat against Seattle and a 3-3 tie versus San Jose.
The Big Question:
Will one of Vancouver's young guns regain their scoring touch? The Whitecaps decided not to make a move to bolster their attacking options before the MLS roster freeze earlier this week with Vice President of Soccer Operations Greg Anderson telling Marc Weber of The Province: "We were looking at long and short-term options. We weren't going to mortgage our future to bring someone in.
"We spent a lot of time researching any option to determine whether the player fit into our playing style and whether their character would fit in, and we just decided that none of the options that presented themselves were the right fit," he said.
The Whitecaps already have targets identified to bring to the club in January, but for now their postseason chances will likely rely on Erik Hurtado, Darren Mattocks or Kekuta Manneh scoring some goals down the stretch. Hurtado got five in five games earlier this season, including one against Portland, but he then had a long drought prior to finding the net at Dallas last week. He took the goal well in Frisco, and Carl Robinson will be hoping Hurtado's strike can be the start of another hot streak.
Last season, Portland set the standard in the Western Conference. They qualified for the playoffs for the first time in MLS, setting club records for points (57), wins (14) and goals scored (54). They finished just two points behind Supporters Shield winners New York Red Bulls. However, this year has been a different story and the Timbers find themselves currently chasing the final playoff place in the West.
Only Chivas USA has conceded more goals in the West than the Timbers this season, and their home form has not been as strong as they would want. But Caleb Porter's side has no problem scoring goals. While they may lack at the back, they have plenty of creativity and attacking options going forward, making them an exciting team to watch.
Diego Valeri must be stopped if the 'Caps are to get anything from the game. The excellent Argentine playmaker has eight goals and 13 assists this season, and comes into the match in very good form. He had a goal and an assist in the 2-2 tie at Colorado last week, and has five assists in his last three matches.
Max Urruti scored twice in the Timbers' 4-2 Champions League win at home to CD Olimpia of Honduras on Tuesday, and Canadian international Will Johnson also found the net in that match. Johnson has a habit of coming up with big performances against Vancouver.
Robinson has switched to a 4-4-2 diamond midfield in recent weeks and is likely to stick with that at Portland. After resting Pedro Morales at Dallas, the Whitecaps captain should return to the XI at a venue where he had one of his best games of the season. Morales had two goals and two assists on his last visit to Portland.
Veteran defender Andy O'Brien is expected to return after being rested at Dallas. O'Brien has started to form a strong partnership alongside the 'Caps excellent new signing Kendall Waston and it will be important to have the duo back together against the Timbers.
The main decision for Robinson will be who to play up front. Hurtado should get the start after scoring at Dallas last week. There is also the potential boost to his game because he is returning home, having grown up in Beaverton, just outside Portland. Sebastian Fernandez would seem the likely choice to partner Hurtado in attack.
The Whitecaps have already been to Portland this season and come away with three points. They also scored four goals on that day back in June to earn their most memorable win of the season so far - but that was their first victory against the Timbers in MLS. The 'Caps record (1-4-5) shows the problems they have had getting maximum points against their Cascadia rivals in the past few years.
The Whitecaps' form and confidence is not at the same level it was when they secured the 4-3 victory earlier this year, but they still have the ability within the squad to cause an upset against a Portland side that has had some struggles at home this season. At this stage of the season - and with the Timbers just behind them in the standings - a draw away from home would be something to celebrate for the 'Caps before they head home for back-to-back matches at BC Place.
Where to Watch:
Jason deVos and Perry Solkowski join me for Portland Timbers against Vancouver Whitecaps live from Providence Park on Saturday. The broadcast gets underway at 5pm et/2pm pt on TSN1, TSN3, TSN4, and TSN5.