BEAVERTON, Ore. — A defense that has been constantly inconsistent is the reason the Portland Timbers have a hill to climb midway through the Major League Soccer season.
If the second half of the season — which starts Friday with a visit to Carson, Calif., to take on the Los Angeles Galaxy — is to be any better, the Timbers are going to need to become difficult to score against.
Led by Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, the Galaxy are not the easiest opponent to face with an unsettled defense. Adding to the challenge today is the fact that Portland will be without center backs Pa Modou Kah and Norberto Paparatto, two of the five players coach Caleb Porter said are unavailable because of injury.
But maybe, just maybe, facing an offense led by proven scorers is a blessing in disguise.
Consider that since Caleb Porter arrived in Portland last season, the Galaxy have not beaten the Timbers and have scored only two goals — one of those a Keane tap-in when Los Angeles visited Portland in May.
That Keane goal — one of several that has come from an opponents throw-in — was emblematic of the type of troubles the Timbers defense has created for itself this season. But might facing star forwards actually help Portland defend better?
"When you're playing against guys like (Keane and Donovan), it's easy to be focused and sharp and disciplined defensively because you know 100 percent if you let your guard down you're going to get smacked," Timbers captain Will Johnson said.
The Timbers recent success against the Galaxy is built upon a team-wide awareness of Los Angeles' star forwards.
"We've not let the games get open when we've played them, and I think that's been a big reason why we've had success," Timbers coach Caleb Porter said. "We've managed the tempo, we've been very organized when the ball turns over, because they're a team that can really punish you" in transition.
In the center of the Portland defense Friday figure to be Danny O'Rourke and Rauwshan McKenzie, neither one a usual first choice center back. Liam Ridgewell, the recently signed Designated Player, isn't expected to arrive until late next week.
Today's starting back four figures to be the 11th different combination this season to open a MLS match on defense for the Timbers.
"That's your most important unit and you want those (back four) guys to be used to playing with each other, and it just hasn't happened for us this year," Johnson said. The captain noted that injuries, suspensions and inconsistent play have meant a state of flux behind him and in front of goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.
Johnson said his role as a defensive midfielder doesn't change no matter who is in the back four, but added that continuity is common for the most successful defenses. But this season's Timbers have not performed consistently enough to give Porter complete confidence in any one group.
"When you have one shutout through 17 games, you have to rotate different guys because you have to be honest and say (the defense) is not good enough," Johnson said.