First place in the Western Conference is within reach for the Colorado Rapids, who are seeking to extend their unbeaten run to nine games when they travel to Providence Park on Wednesday for a date with the Portland Timbers.
Portland have won three in a row as they currently sit in fifth in the Western Conference table, while the Burgundy Boys are third but only three points behind the leaders, the Seattle Sounders, with a game in hand.
For most of 2021, Portland have underachieved, clinging to or fighting for a playoff spot, seemingly every week but struggling to find any chemistry or consistency.
It seems that all they needed to get their season back on track was a kick in the rear end from their Pacific rivals, the Seattle Sounders, who handed them a 6-2 beat down in mid-August.
As the saying goes, better late than never, and Giovanni Savarese has this team currently playing their best football of the season, earning points in four of their last five matches with three successive clean sheets away from home.
On Friday, they beat one of the hottest teams in the league in the Vancouver Whitecaps, winning 1-0 at BC Place Stadium, ending the Caps' 10-games unbeaten run in MLS play.
The Rapids are coming into this encounter just as hot as the Whitecaps, and desperate to move up the standings, so Savarese knows that his team need to maintain that intensity with a big three points up for grabs.
With their recent string of strong results, the expectations for this side have changed from a team just looking to get into the postseason to a side in a good position to finish at least in the top four if not higher, with seven of their final 11 regular season matches taking place at Providence Park.
Throughout this season, many have touted the Rapids as one of the sleeper teams to watch out for, and having now gone well over a month without losing, it appears this sleeping giant have awoken.
On Saturday, under some unusually humid conditions in the Centennial State, Robin Fraser saw his side grind out a hard-fought 1-1 draw with the Los Angeles Galaxy as they continue to find ways to earn points.
Consistency has been the staple of the Burgundy Boys, having not lost consecutive fixtures all season, with their longest winless run being two games.
That kind of consistency and ability to earn results even when you are not at your best is the kind of form that can make you a champion, and the Rapids boss knows a thing or two about winning, having captured two MLS Cup titles as a player and another two as an assistant coach.
Colorado could very well be the most formidable side in the league to break down defensively, as you are rarely allowed a lot of time and space against them in their own third of the field, as they have conceded only 21 goals this year, the fewest in MLS.
Another trait that makes them extremely dangerous is the fact that they are just as comfortable playing in front of their home fans as they are on the road, with six wins in each department this year, and they have scored in all but two matches away from home so far in 2021.
Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark has asserted himself as the unquestioned number one for this team, stopping the last 14 shots that he has faced, collecting three straight shutouts.
On Friday, Diego Chara earned his 300th cap for Portland, becoming only the eighth player in MLS history to play in 300 games for one club, and even though he did not get credit for it, some great work by Felipe Mora set up the winning goal versus the Caps as his shot beat Maxime Crepeau, and caused Ranko Veselinovic to panic as he could not sort his feet out, scoring an own goal.
Claudio Bravo has been a threat out wide all season and equally strong defensively, with 41 tackles, just one behind Yuya Kubo of FC Cincinnati for the MLS lead, while Cristhian Paredes remains questionable with a right thigh injury, Diego Valeri has a right leg issue and Eryk Williamson is out with an ACL tear.
Rapids striker Michael Barrios scored his team-leading sixth goal of the season on Saturday, with substitute Andre Shinyashiki earning his first assist on that play and Dominique Badji, the hero versus the Quakes, collected his 150th career MLS cap when he replaced Barrios with 10 minutes remaining.
Kellyn Acosta featured in the starting 11 for the 160th time in his MLS career last weekend, while Mark-Anthony Kaye returned to the lineup following his tour of international duty with Canada in CONCACAF World Cup 2022 qualifying.
Portland Timbers possible starting lineup:
Clark; Bravo, Zuparic, Mabiala, Van Rankin; Tuiloma, D. Chara, Y. Chara; Moreno, Asprilla; Mora
Colorado Rapids possible starting lineup:
Yarbrough; Rosenberry, Wilson, Trusty; Bassett, Warner, Acosta, Rubio, Lewis, Kaye; Barrios
We say: Portland Timbers 1-1 Colorado Rapids
Both teams are playing pretty well, with the Timbers starting to show their poise defensively while the Rapids are the top defensive unit in the league and both teams are not only feeling pretty good about their games, but they each have a lot of players who can score.
The Timbers have won four of their last five fixtures at Providence Park, but the Rapids are unbeaten in five straight matches on the road, so a draw seems like the most probable outcome with two sides on such a roll.
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