Union-Timbers 5 things: Kicking off season-defining road swing

Union (11-10-8) at Timbers (10-11-8)
6 p.m. on TCN

With the 2016 season nearly over, the playoff-hungry Union begin a defining three-game road trip Saturday, as they travel cross-country to battle the reigning MLS champion Portland Timbers at Providence Park.

Here are five things to know for the matchup.

1. Beginning the gauntlet
Hungry for points, the Union run into a three-game road swing at a bad time.

“When the schedule comes out, you see that block of three games and go, 'That’s a tough stretch right there,'" Union manager Jim Curtin said. “When it’s a block of three road games, the first one is critical.”

Currently fourth in the Eastern Conference, the club’s ability to scrape together results on the road, where it hasn't been particularly strong, could determine where it lands in a crowded East playoff picture.

If the Union can manage the third or fourth spot in the East, they get a first-round home game. If they fall to fifth or sixth, they visit the opposition. With that kind of positioning on the line, it’s crucial that the Union rise to the occasion against the Timbers.

“I think it is critical to start the road trip and get confidence,” said Curtin, whose club also faces Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls on the road swing. “Get a point or three out of the first game, because that sets the tone for the next two. I think it’s important to go into a tough place and get points.”

2. Midfield changes
Between Brian Carroll’s injury and Alejandro Bedoya’s international duty, Union midfielder Warren Creavalle has been a workhorse, filling in the gaps in what has often been a patchwork midfield.

“Warren has done a great job,” Curtin said. “There’s not many players that get a bigger smile on their face from playing defense. I like those kind of guys. There’s moments in the game where he looks exhausted and gassed, and then he’ll find that second wind and go on an 80-yard run, put out another fire for us and make a big play.”

But the Union might have to do without Creavalle on Saturday. The midfielder is suffering from knee tendinitis, meaning the Union could go back to Carroll at defensive midfield Saturday. Carroll is recovering from plantar fasciitis and hasn’t played since Aug. 6.

“He’s an important player to be getting back at an important time of the year,” Curtin said of Carroll. “Brian has had a quiet great season for this club. He’s looked sharp in training and I think it’s time where we would say we’re comfortable throwing him in as a starter.”

3. Weary Timbers
The Timbers are in an awkward situation.

On Wednesday, the club was defeated by Deportivo Saprissa, 4-2, in CONCACAF Champions League play, in San Jose, Costa Rica. Meaning the weary Timbers now have to travel back home for a Saturday clash with the Union.

“They have a big travel from Costa Rica to play a game at Portland in the afternoon,” Curtin said. “And on what they would deem a hot temperature day.”

If this match was played early in the season, the Timbers would likely rely heavily on squad rotation in which they would dress backups and younger players. But the Timbers need points. With 38 points, they are holding onto the sixth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

“They’re fighting for points just like we are, just like everybody kind of at this point of the year,” Curtin said. “A lot of the same things that we did against Montreal we need to bring to the Portland game. We need to have that killer instinct to end the game.”

And the Timbers aren’t the healthiest, either. According to Jamie Goldberg of the Oregonian, Jack Jewsbury, Alvas Powell, Liam Ridgewell, Darlington Nagbe, Ned Grabavoy and Fanendo Adi are all questionable for Saturday.

“We need to shift gears and focus on the league,” Timbers coach Caleb Porter said. “We’re in a situation where we’re assessing guys and we may have some guys that are out, a bit banged up because of the week. We’re still assessing who is healthy.”

4. Keep an eye on …
Union: With Ilsinho unfit to put in heavy minutes, or even play at all, the right attacking midfield position will likely land with Fabian Herbers, who has started four consecutive games. And though he doesn’t have a goal over that span, Curtin feels he’s due. “Fabian, I think this last game, had four really good looks,” he said.

Timbers: Although former Union striker Jack McInerney is goalless in his last seven games, there’s no doubt he’d like to stick it to the Union. McInerney is mainly a bench forward but has five goals in 21 games this season.

5. This and that
• The Union’s front three of C.J Sapong, Chris Pontius and Herbers have combined for just one goal in each of their last five games. “I’d be more concerned with the three of them if we weren’t getting chances,” Curtin said.

• Should Carroll not be able to play at defensive midfield Saturday, the Union have the option of tapping Ken Tribbett. The rookie central defender played midfield at Drexel University.

• Behind the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC, the Union are third in the East in goals with 48. However, the club is tied for fourth in goals against with 45.