Strong's Notes: On Thursday night, it’s 18,638 v 11
It’s déjà vu all over again for the Portland Timbers, as for a third straight week they face an MLS team that A) has reshaped their roster in a bid to reclaim lost glory (or, in the case of Toronto, find it for the first time), and B) plays a very different formation than the opponent from the week before. This time around it’s the Chicago Fire, who under second-year head coach Carlos de los Cobos are trying to bounce back from a 2010 in which they missed the playoffs for just the second time in their history.
The Fire come to Portland on the back of a 2-1 loss at Seattle last Saturday that provided the basis for two of the keys we’ll look at in a moment: they were dangerous in attack only being denied a positive result by the resurgent brilliance of Kasey Keller while also presenting a less than stellar defense due to a key injury in the center of the Chicago backline.
Against the Fire, the Timbers will see some variation of the 3-5-2 de los Cobos installed in the preseason. I say variation because the Fire have looked more like a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 at times, depending on personnel and game situation, though the new Opta game analysis MLS now provides shows they have a tendency to be all over the place on the field.
On the other side, Portland coach John Spencer is telling all and sundry that while Thursday night is an important game, it’s no more important than the other 33 this year. While his primary purpose is to make sure his team doesn’t just assume the crowd will lift them to victory (more on that in a moment), as a hyperbole-filled media type, I have to disagree. The events of Thursday night will be commemorated in history, and in the memories of the thousands who watch, for decades to come; the opening goal of the game will be a trivia question; Friday’s front page of the sports section will be something I, and others, show our grandkids. No one wants it to say anything but a glorious Timbers win, and their first in MLS to boot.
Beware the Three-Headed Monster
What I noticed in watching the Fire take on Seattle was that they were at their most dangerous when their three attacking players got into open space and were allowed to run at individual defenders. We’ve already seen defensive errors kill the Timbers early in the season, so there will once again be a lot of pressure on the back four to get it right.
Chicago is led by the Uruguayan attacking duo of Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari, who between them have four of the Fire’s five goals this season. Chaves is more of a classic, back-to-goal No. 9, who is the first Chicago player in history to score in each of his first three MLS games. Puerari (who has a very cool back story – look it up) drops and plays off Chaves, and drew red card fouls in their first two games. Not to be forgotten is last year’s team MVP and MLS All-Star Marco Pappa: the Guatemalan is always listed as a center midfielder, but always does his damage on the left. And, with so much attention being placed on Chaves and Puerari so far, don’t be shocked to see him suddenly burst back on to the scene.
Control the Wings
In a 3-5-2 formation, simply put, the defensive line is much more narrow, meaning it’s up to the wingers to track back from midfield to cover the outsides, lest huge gaps open up for the opposing team to exploit. Chicago seems to handle that in a different way on each side: on the left, Gonzalo Segares, himself a left back in a 4-4-2, plays much deeper than the rest of the midfield to cover that space. On the right, rookie sensation Jalil Anibaba has led the team in touches on the ball so far and can deliver pinpoint passes. It’s his attacking threat, and advanced movement, that helps to pin back the opposing winger, who has to focus as much on marking Anibaba as attacking.
We already know that John Spencer’s system is predicated on wing play, with the outside backs overlapping their respective midfielders as they bomb up the sideline. It hasn’t gone quite to plan so far but now A) you’re playing a team whose system puts more pressure on their wingers, and B) you have Darlington Nagbe and Sal Zizzo, first choice guys on left and right respectively, finally healthy. This should help cause trouble for Chicago’s backline.
You Can’t Rely On the Crowd, But You Must Use Them
Timbers coach John Spencer is right when he says his team can’t just show up in front of the explosive JELD-WEN Field atmosphere and expect it’ll lift them to a first MLS win. “The fans can only sing so much,” he said at training this week, “we, on the field of play, not the fans, need to produce a winning performance.”
And, as we’ve seen plenty of times in the last decade, the amazing atmosphere can actually work against the Timbers, as their Army fires up the opposition just as much, inspiring them to a heroic winning performance.
That all being said, it’s not 11 v 11 on Thursday night, it’s 18,638 v 11. Yes, the Timbers need to produce their best performance of the season to upend the Fire and get their first MLS win. But, they’ll have one of the best crowds in Portland sports history—perhaps even American soccer history—behind them. Use it, embrace it, let it lift up an already spirited 90 minutes to a level that, with a very tough stretch of games coming the next few weeks, can hopefully kick start a Timbers sprint up the standings.