Five Things, presented by Keith + Associates Dentistry, is a weekly series on SportingKC.com that highlights the top storylines, players to watch and matchday programming ahead of each game throughout the season.
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Two teams immediately below the playoff line in the Western Conference will lock horns Saturday night as ninth-place Sporting Kansas City (10-11-7, 37 points) visits the eighth-place Portland Timbers (12-11-4, 40 points) at Providence Park. Live coverage of the crucial encounter will begin at 9:30 p.m. CT on FOX Sports Kansas City, FOX Sports Midwest Plus, FOX Sports GO, ESPN 94.5 FM and La Grande 1340 AM.
Sporting’s roller coaster season currently finds Manager Peter Vermes’ men riding the highs of a winning streak that has brought the club within five points of playoff positioning. On the opposite sideline, Portland has leveraged a home-heavy stretch of matches to inch closer and closer to the seventh and final postseason berth.
With Sporting and Portland both longing for three points as the final month of the regular season commences, let’s jump into five things you must know about Saturday’s pivotal clash.
1. We Want Four
Sporting just might be catching fire at the most opportune time. The club has notched its first three-game winning streak of the year after sinking San Jose, Minnesota and Houston on home soil.
As the calendar turns to September, Sporting will hope their newfound consistency travels well. Center back Graham Smith and left back Luis Martins have been particularly solid during the three-game surge, joining veterans Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to bolster an in-form backline. Between the posts, Tim Melia boasts consecutive clean sheets and enters Saturday one shutout shy of passing Jimmy Nielsen for the most in club history.
2. Wild, Wild West
Quick refresher: the top seven teams in the West will punch tickets to the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, which will begin Oct. 19-20. LAFC are runaway leaders at the top, but just four points separate second place (Seattle on 46) from seventh (LA Galaxy on 42) in the crowded conference standings. Portland (40 points) has the opportunity to steal away seventh place this weekend, while Sporting (37 points) can climb within two points of seventh should they emerge victorious on Saturday.
Oh, and Sporting’s next opponent after their road trip to Providence Park? A visit to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and—you guessed it—LA Galaxy on Sept. 15. Needless to say, the importance riding on the final six matches of the regular season is absolutely immense.
3. Melia Magic
Death, taxes and Tim Melia standing on his head at Providence Park. In four regular season appearances at Portland’s home stadium, Melia has yet to allow a goal while making 20 saves. Including playoffs, he has conceded just once in six matches and boasts a gaudy 0.17 goals against average.
As mentioned above, Melia is sitting on 45 regular season shutouts in a Sporting uniform. Another clean sheet would vault him atop the club’s all-time charts, and what better place to claim his record-breaker than in the venue where he has delivered numerous standout performances.
4. Revenge in Mind
Sporting players, coaches and fans alike won’t need a reminder that Portland ended their 2018 season just short of the MLS Cup. In a tightly contested Western Conference Championship, the Timbers prevailed 3-2 on aggregate after winning a five-goal thriller in the decisive second leg at Children’s Mercy Park on Nov. 29. Fast-forward nine months and Sporting finally have their shot at revenge. It’s also worth noting that Portland will make their long-awaited return trip to Kansas City in three short weeks on Sept. 29.
5. Shorthanded Squads
Given the magnitude of Saturday’s match, it’s unfortunate that neither side will be at full strength—due in large part to the arrival of FIFA’s international window.
We begin with the Timbers, who will miss nine players due to injury or international duty: Larrys Mabiala (injury), Julio Cascante (injury), Modou Jadama (injury), Zarek Valentin (injury), Marco Farfan (injury), Cristhian Paredes (injury), Jeff Attinella(injury), Andres Flores (international duty) and Renzo Zambrano (international duty).
Meanwhile, Sporting will miss six players of their own—all of whom have joined their respective national teams: Botond Barath, Gianluca Busio, Felipe Gutierrez, Nico Hasler, Krisztian Nemeth and Johnny Russell.