Strong's Notes: Pinball Wizards

Portland's speed must capitalize on chances

Darlington Nagbe - Timbers vs. RSL, 4.30.11

Photo Credit: 
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Say what you will about coach John Spencer’s team selection on Tuesday night against San Jose (and most of you have), but the effect is that not only do they come into the final leg of this three-games-in-seven-days-mini-marathon as rested and ready as possible, but the amount of changes from one match to another means that this game can be viewed not as much as an attempt to bounce back from a loss, but as the attempt to continue momentum gained from last Saturday’s win over Real Salt Lake. When viewed (properly so, I might add) in the context of MLS play, the Timbers are still a perfect 3-0-0 in the friendly confines of JELD-WEN Field, have won three of their last four matches, and are one of the hottest teams in the league.

Conveniently enough for those who will be tuning in for the debut of Fox Soccer’s re-branded “Soccer Night in America” coverage, the Timbers will be taking on another of the hottest teams in MLS. The Philadelphia Union are unbeaten in their last four games, feature the tied-for-best defensive record in the league, and are just a few weeks removed from arguably the biggest win in their short history, a 1-0 result over New York on April 9th. Currently standing near the top of the table in the Eastern Conference, what’s interesting about the Union is how they’ve gone about this success.

Following in the footsteps of a slow-starting expansion campaign in 2010, key offseason acquisitions and the maturation of their young roster have combined for a team that’s mastered the quintessentially Italian skill of the 1-0 win, which is ironic, given that their coach—Peter Nowak—is not only Polish, but known as one of the better attacking players in MLS history. All four of their wins have come by that scoreline, as did their lone loss. While they have one of the best records in the league, and have already doubled last year’s total of two defensive shutouts, they’ve scored a league-worst five goals.

As the Timbers end a chaotic and crowded week, Philly is just starting one: tonight kicks off a three-game in eight-day stretch. So, while one side is trying to keep momentum to carry them through a rough week, the other is trying to finish their difficult seven days strong, with one of the most important games they’ll play in 2011 looming just beyond the horizon. Let’s look at what I see as the keys to Friday’s battle:

Speed versus Strength
Despite having some genuinely great attacking options in Carlos Ruiz, Sebastien Le Toux, and Portland boy Danny Mwanga for starters; Philadelphia coach Peter Nowak has set his team up as a defensive side so far in 2011. Playing with an unchanged back four in the first six matches, ahead of an incredibly experienced goalkeeper, and in all but one game protected by a two-man defensive midfield shield, it’s no surprise they’ve conceded just the two goals.

On the other side, however, is a very dynamic Timbers attack. The recent additions of Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe to the starting lineup produced some fantastic soccer last Saturday night, even if it was obscured by the 1-0 scoreline. In addition to our KeyBank Match-up of the Match you can read elsewhere, keep an eye on another big battle going on in that half of the field. For all of their experience, size, and strength, Philadelphia’s defensive core isn’t know for winning track meets (though nor is Portland’s, if we’re being honest).

With burners like Jeremy Hall, Rodney Wallace, Jorge Perlaza and the aforementioned Nagbe and Chara, screaming upfield, there is a hope within the team that that can create the necessary space to get shots off and try to pierce goalkeeper’s Faryd Mondragon’s net. Which brings us to key number two…

If you can create the chance, you must take the chance
If I were a betting man (which I assure the league office I am not), I’d say we can expect a type of match on Friday night similar to last Saturday’s against Real Salt Lake: taught, compact, controlled, and organized. Which is to say, not very high scoring. We’ve talked before about the importance of the first goal, and it becomes a cliché at times, but this is an example of a match where it becomes huge. The Union are the current masters in MLS of getting a solitary goal to hold up the rest of the match, while the Timbers just acquired that skill in snapping one of the longest unbeaten runs in league history.

So, what’s being done by each team to make sure they’re the ones who gets that early goal? Philly forward Carlos Ruiz told the team’s website they’ve been working in practice this week on flooding the box with players (three or more) as they get the ball wide, then swinging in a cross. For the Timbers, coach John Spencer told the media today that when they win the ball, they’ve got to get it wide and fly upfield. Those tactics become doubly important for the side that drops the early goal and finds themselves swimming upstream at 1-nil down…

Who knew John Spencer had such a supple wrist?
Philadelphia coach Peter Nowak is worried about playing at JELD-WEN Field; not as much because of the atmosphere as the field itself. “It’s a little too small,” he told reporters this week. “When you watch the games they play at home, it’s pinball, they press the other team. We’ve got to figure out [a] good plan for that.”

It’s definitely true that the dimensions of the pitch at the House of Pane are more compact than other MLS stadiums, and for all of the quality of the artificial surface, it does play quicker than most grass fields. It’s also true that if the Union are spending time in practice figuring out a way to deal with those factors, it’s a minor victory for the Timbers.

Rather than seeing the Timbers’ attempts to stay compact and press the opposition in the middle of the field as a pragmatic reaction to the unique qualities of their home ground, or a reaction to having lesser talent, I see it as just trying to play good, high intensity soccer. And, it’s not quite accurate: coach John Spencer has said time and again he wants his team to attack via the wings, with big overlapping runs from the outside backs. However, if in addition to using another installment of “The Best Atmosphere In US Soccer” as a boost towards another win, the Timbers can be pinball wizards too, I say all the better. Play quick, close down quick, don’t give Philly time to breathe on the ball. And then when you get it, turn on those afterburners on the wings and see if you can once again grab a goal and take down one of the top teams in MLS.