After losing influential playmaker Diego Valeri, captain Will Johnson and Ben Zemanski all to injury, the Timbers kicked off the 2015 season with their central midfield in tatters. To compensate, coach Caleb Porter opted to deploy a 4-5-1 formation instead of his preferred 4-3-3 for their season opener at home against Real Salt Lake, swapping style for practicality.
It's not a bad strategy. Knowing Portland can't effectively replicate the possession game Porter wants, the Timbers are relying on their wing play and improved defense to grind out results.
There's no doubt Portland's defense has gotten better. A fully fit Liam Ridgewell next to the experienced Nat Borchers has given the Timbers a centerback pairing that's going to be tough to break down. Crucially, the Portland back line finally looks organized, a luxury I'm not sure the Timbers have ever enjoyed in MLS. Though untested, Ghanian international keeper Adam Larsen Kwarasey brings calm and confidence to the position and certainly looks the part.
(His distribution is also excellent, something LA needs to keep an eye on)
The formation worked for the most part. The Timbers dominated Real Salt Lake and were unlucky not to score on several occasions. Portland outshot RSL 18-9 as the duo of Dairon Asprilla and Rodney Wallace caused havoc on the wings. Real Salt Lake were ineffective, Javier Morales was shut down and the team only managed two shots on goal.
On the other hand, the Timbers created nothing in the center of midfield and Portland only really looked dangerous on crosses and set pieces. (At some point I was having USMNT Brazil flashbacks)
How do LA beat the Portland defense? It won't be an easy task. In addition to last week's clean sheet, the Timbers ended 2014 on a 304-minute shutout streak. Sunday's weather forecast also predicts showers in the afternoon with a 90% chance of rain.
Battling a defensive formation on rainy turf? This could be an ugly one. The Galaxy should win the possession battle and prevent Portland from scoring, but it'll take some Keane magic or perhaps an Alan Gordon super-sub appearance for LA to pull off the road win.
The Galaxy also have some lineup questions. Who starts in the back? The Timbers managed to earn 11 corners and got off 32 crosses total, so expect Omar Gonzalez and Leonardo to start to nullify the aerial threat.
Center mid? Bruce admitted earlier in the week that the central midfield would be adjusted for a month or two until he figures out the right partnership. New signing Mika Vayrynen has yet to finalize his paperwork, so look for Baggio Husidic to slide back into the lineup.
In goal? With Jaime Penedo struggling to get fit, rumors of ongoing contract negotiations, and now another call up for Panama, will Brian Rowe see a run at goal?
I for one wouldn't be surprised to be Brian Rowe in goal again come Sunday.