1) Who has had a bigger effect on the Portland Timbers: Will Johnson or Caleb Porter? What has changed from before?
Caleb Porter is the easy answer here, especially with last season as the starting point. His overhaul of the roster included Johnson and others who implemented Porter's preferred style. If all goes to plan, Porter will be here long after Johnson and will have another midfielder in his place at some point down the line.
That said, Johnson was recently re-signed and is an integral cog in the so-called Porterball wheel. In games where Johnson struggles or is ineffectual, the Timbers often fail to pick up points. While Portland would have preferred to take three points from Chivas USA last weekend instead of just the one, it was no coincidence that Johnson's best game this season came in what should have been a Timbers win. Last year, Johnson's skill set and influence were perhaps taken for granted and now we're seeing that he really does need to perform for Portland to succeed.
2) On paper, the Timbers should be better this year than in 2013. What has been the reasoning for the Timbers' relatively slow start in 2014?
Part of the problem is that several players had career years in 2013. That is hard to replicate, even if the overall team is quite talented. Another issue is that the Timbers had a nice balance across the midfield three with Rodney Wallace playing such a big role last season. He has been recovering from an ACL injury last last season and Steve Zakuani has been either hurt or ineffective in his few appearances so far. That's left some combination of Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, Kalif Alhassan and Gaston Fernandez to vie for the three spots, each of whom generally prefers to drift toward the middle. That's led to a damaging lack of width and creativity in the final third, at least in the form of early crosses or simply keeping defenders honest.
Though it was a bit better against Seattle Sounders and Chivas in the past two weeks, Portland has become pretty predictable. Add in a horrible start to the season for the center back trio of Norberto Paparatto, Pa Modou Kah and Futty Danso (who amazingly has appeared to be the best of the group), and just a few mistakes are costing the Timbers points each week. The attack isn't doing enough to cover up defensive mistakes and when the attack fizzles, the defense isn't keeping a clean sheet. It's a bad cycle for the start of the season.
3) How similar do you think the Timbers' style of play is compared to RSL's style of play?
While these two clubs are popularly equated for playing style, the big difference is how Portland uses two holding midfielders and RSL usually uses just one. The Timbers don't have the luxury of leaving a single midfielder to help cover the back four and that reduces the number of attackers. Portland is also a lot less direct than RSL, so the ball moves about for long stretches, often without amounting to much. While the two teams might have more in common than they do with other teams, I really don't think the teams are as similar as folks make them out to be.
Injuries/Absences: Steve Zakuani (hamstring), Rodney Wallace (ACL recovery)