Those 2-0 wins over the minor league Charlotte Eagles and D.C. United, the worst team in Major League Soccer, in the last two matches were nice. The Fire needed some positive results after three months of frustration.
Now, though, the Fire’s new-look lineup will be put to a much more challenging test. The Portland Timbers come to Toyota Park on Saturday. The Timbers (5-1-7) are carrying a franchise record 11-game unbeaten streak, have yet to lose (2-0-5) on the road this season and have beat the Fire in all three of their previous meetings.
The Fire’s three-game unbeaten streak (2-0-1) across all competitions is encouraging but pales in comparison with Portland’s accomplishments. On the same night the Fire beat Charlotte -- the team's first win in more than a month -– Portland crushed the Wilmington Hammerheads, another minor league club that had high hopes in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, by a 5-1 margin.
That game was notable because forward Frederic Piquionne scored four goals, all in the first half. He’s in his first season with Portland after spending the last three in England, the last two of those with West Ham United.
Piquionne, who has also played internationally for both France and Martinique, had been basically a bench player since coming to MLS. He had gone without a goal in 11 MLS matches and started in just two of those. He’ll likely be on the pitch Saturday, however -– and not just because of his one big game.
Portland will make only its second-ever visit to Toyota Park -- the first was a 1-0 win in 2011 -– in a weakened state. Four of the Timbers’ top players are on national team duty. Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and forward Ryan Johnson will be with Jamaica for its World Cup qualifier against the United States in Kingston, Jamaica, on Friday night. Midfielder Rodney Wallace will be with Costa Rica and defender Futty Danso with The Gambia.
The Fire won’t be so depleted. Only midfielder Joel Lindpere will be on national team duty. He joined the Estonian national team on Sunday. It has international friendlies against Trinidad & Tobago on Friday and Kyrgyzstan next Tuesday. Lindpere, whose free kick set up the Fire’s first goal in the win over D.C. United in Bridgeview on Sunday, will also miss next Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup match against the Columbus Crew at Toyota Park.
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The Fire have lost starting goalkeeper Sean Johnson to international duty in the past, but he isn’t on the U.S. roster for the trip to Jamaica and the team’s health report has only one questionable participant. Captain Logan Pause, who suffered a groin injury against Charlotte, has been training this week but still needs to regain full fitness.
That means there’s some uncertainty in the midfield. Daniel Paladini and/or Dilly Duka could join usual starters Jeff Larentowicz and Patrick Nyarko with Lindpere missing and Pause questionable. Alex, the Brazilian midfielder who played well as a member of the first 11 against D.C. United, is also in the mix.
While the Fire (3-7-2) and Timbers are opposites as far as success goes over the last three months, there is one similarity. Both were 2-0 winners over D.C. United in their last MLS matches. The Timbers got their win over the cellar-dwellers on the road while playing without midfield mainstay Diego Valeri (hamstring) and new signee Po Modou Kah making his debut with Portland as a central defender. Those lineup adjustments didn’t prevent the Timbers from notching their fifth shutout of the campaign.
Coincidentally, the National Women’s Soccer League franchises in the two cities collided last week in Portland, with Chicago’s Red Stars (1-4-2) claiming their first win of the season against a team that had been hot. The Portland Thorns, who have a working agreement with the Timbers, had been off to a rousing 6-1-1 start before being upset 2-0 by the Red Stars.
The Portland visit is the second of a four-game homestand for the Fire, and the club will get another match in Bridgeview if it can beat Columbus in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup match. The Fire will host the winner of the Sporting Kansas City-Orlando City match in the quarterfinal stage of the summer-long tournament if it can beat the Crew. The homestand ends with a visit from the Colorado Rapids on June 19, then the Fire visit Columbus in MLS play four nights later.