The final month of the MLS regular season begins in earnest Saturday night as two teams immediately below the Western Conference playoff line go head-to-head at Providence Park in Portland.
Ninth-place Sporting Kansas City (10-11-7, 37 points) will put their three-game winning streak on the line against the eighth-place Portland Timbers (12-11-4, 40 points) in a showdown rife with postseason implications.
FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest Plus and FOX Sports GO will provide three hours of live coverage on Saturday beginning at 9:30 p.m. CT. Listeners in the Kansas City area can also catch the action live on ESPN 94.5 FM (English) and La Grande 1340 AM (Spanish), while viewers outside the FOX Sports Midwest footprint can stream the game on ESPN Plus.
A win on Saturday would bolster the playoff hopes for both teams as the decisive stretch run of the regular season commences.
LAFC is the runaway leader at the summit, but just four points separate second place (Seattle on 46) from seventh (LA Galaxy on 42) in the crowded Western Conference standings.
Portland (40 points) has the opportunity to steal away seventh with a win, while Sporting (37 points) can climb within two points of seventh should it emerge victorious.
Led by 11th-year manager Peter Vermes, the longest-tenured head coach in MLS, Sporting just might be catching fire at the right time. The club has notched its first three-game winning streak of the year after sinking San Jose, Minnesota and Houston on home soil — all by a one-goal margin.
Center back Graham Smith and left back Luis Martins have both emerged during the three-game surge, joining veterans Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to bolster an in-form backline.
Between the posts, Tim Melia has notched consecutive clean sheets and enters the weekend with 45 regular season shutouts — one shy of passing Jimmy Nielsen for the most in team history.
Renovations to Providence Park during the first half of 2019 has resulted in a home-heavy end to Portland’s MLS schedule.
The Timbers, who will play six of their final seven fixtures at Providence Park, suffered back-to-back home defeats before claiming a narrow 1-0 triumph over Orlando City SC last Saturday. Playmaking talisman Diego Valeri bagged a brilliant game-winner in the 16th minute to give the hosts three precious points and assuage lingering concerns among the Timbers faithful.
At age 33, Valeri remains one of the most prolific attacking players in MLS. He is the league’s only active player with 75 goals and 75 assists in the regular season and has continued to shine in 2019, leading MLS in chances created while placing second with 15 assists.
Fellow Argentine Sebastian Blanco provides game-changing class in the midfield — evidenced by his five game-winning assists — while striker Brian Fernandez has given Portland another dangerous weapon up top. Fernandez has 10 goals in 15 MLS appearances since joining the club in May and owns an 8-4-1 record as a starter.
Despite the magnitude of Saturday’s match, neither side will be at full strength.
Sporting is set to travel without six players — including their top three scorers — due to the arrival of FIFA’s international window. Felipe Gutierrez (10 goals), Johnny Russell (nine goals) and Krisztian Nemeth (seven goals) face national team obligations alongside U.S. U-17 midfielder Gianluca Busio and defenders Botond Barath and Nico Hasler.
The hobbled Timbers face a similar situation with up to nine absentees, namely Larrys Mabiala (injury), Julio Cascante (injury), Modo Jadama (injury), Zarek Valentin (injury), Marco Farfan (injury), Cristhian Paredes (injury), Jeff Attinella (injury), Andres Flores (international duty) and Renzo Zambrano (international duty).
Sporting and Portland have squared off in several hot-blooded battles over the last five years. The Timbers notably edged Sporting 3-2 on aggregate in the 2018 Western Conference Championship, prevailing in a five-goal thriller at Children’s Mercy Park last November after the sides settled for a scoreless first leg in Portland.
Sporting has enjoyed plenty of regular season success at Providence Park, where they own a 4-2-2 record and shutouts in five of their eight regular season visits. Melia has been particularly outstanding at the stadium, where he has allowed just one goal in six MLS appearances (including playoffs). Since 2014, Sporting owns a 5-1-4 record in the regular season series with eight shutouts.
- Story from Sporting KC