By Sean Hartnett
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The Red Bulls rolled into Portland ahead of Friday night’s clash with the Timbers riding a hot streak, but they are in for quite a test against a team that knows how to defend its home turf.
Although New York has won eight of nine matches in all competitions, every avid follower of Major League Soccer knows that Providence Park is a difficult place to earn a “W.”
Sitting in fifth place in the Western Conference, the Timbers are 6-2-4 at home. They’re a much different team at home than on the road, where they’ve struggled to a 3-7-3 mark. The Timbers average 2.3 goals per match at Providence Park and are willed on by their colorful supporters. It’s safe to say that Portland fans create the most intimidating atmosphere in the league, due to the nonstop noise that borders on earsplitting.
If you’re a casual soccer fan, not necessarily a Red Bulls supporters, it will still be worth tuning in at 10 p.m. on Friday. You’re going to witness an atmosphere unlike any other in American soccer. It’s more than a sport to Timbers fans; it’s a lifestyle within a tight-knit community.
The green smoke, “Timber Joey” revving his chainsaw, the massive prematch tifos, and the rhythmic chanting and swaying always add up to something that is much larger than a capacity crowd of 21,144.
It will be interesting to see how Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch approaches his lineup selection in response to his squad’s 120-minute U.S. Open Cup semifinal victory over FC Cincinnati on Tuesday. Seven Red Bulls played the entire match. Daniel Royer remains out due to a knee injury.
The Red Bulls have been on a scoring spree over their last five MLS matches, averaging 3.4 goals per game. However, they only average 1.3 on the road. Portland, which will try to clamp down on what will be a shorthanded New York starting XI, needs to deliver a strong performance for its fans in response to a 4-1 defeat in Toronto last weekend.
With Royer out and free-scoring forward Bradley Wright-Phillips probably among those needing a rest, the Red Bulls will look to midfielder Sean Davis to continue his hot form and forward Gonzalo Veron to put in another strong effort. Though Veron has scored just one goal in 13 league appearances this season, he scored the first goal in Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup comeback. It was one of the Argentine’s best moments in a Red Bulls uniform.
Midfielder Diego Valeri is Portland’s leader in goals (13) and assists (eight). He ranks only behind David Villa, Nemanja Nikolic and Wright-Phillips in the Golden Boot race. With his goal last weekend against Toronto, the Argentine became the 18th player in MLS history to record 50 goals and 50 assists. Jaime Moreno and Landon Donovan are the only players to reach the 50-50 club in fewer games than Valeri’s 139 appearances.
Portland captain Liam Ridgewell (quad), starting goalkeeper Jake Gleeson (hamstring) and 10-goal scorer Fanendo Adi (hamstring) did not train this week and are expected to miss Friday’s game.
While both teams will be shorthanded, there’s much at stake. The Red Bulls trail third-place Chicago by only three points in the Eastern Conference. Portland is three points out of first place in the Western Conference and only three points clear of the final playoff spot.
It has been that kind of wacky year in the West, so it’s vital to Portland to not lose ground. Make no mistake, the Timbers will throw everything at the Red Bulls in an attempt to protect their house.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey