Strong's Notes: Watch out for their wings

First goals and past familiarity all at play vs. D.C.

Rodney Wallace celebrates, Timbers vs. FC Dallas, 4.17.11

Photo Credit: 
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Despite a fifth win out of five home games for the Portland Timbers last Saturday, there was an important teaching tool the coaching staff could take out of the game and apply to practice this week: whether it was fatigue, complacency, or just a Columbus Crew team that came out hungrier, the Timbers were not at their best in the first 45 minutes. However, before things could truly turn south and leave the Timbers scrambling to come back for a result, Troy Perkins came up with the best save of his Portland career, Jack Jewsbury caught the Crew defense napping on a free kick, and the Timbers had yet another home win.

They’ll keep that firmly in mind on Sunday (2:00 pm PT KPDX TV, estrellaTV 8.3; 750 AM The GameLa Pantera 940 AMMLS MatchDay Live) as they try to make it six-for-six at home against a team that seems to be pulling themselves out of an early tailspin, D.C. United. This game has perhaps more storylines than any other this year for the Timbers, so let’s get right at it:

Familiarity Breeding Contempt
After watching Eric Brunner play—and score—against his former team, it’s time for Rodney Wallace and Troy Perkins to face their old team. Wallace played his first two pro seasons in D.C. in what was in a lot of ways his hometown: Wallace grew up in suburban Washington after being born in Costa Rica, and went to the University of Maryland. He still has friends on the team, was roommates with winger Chris Pontius, though quietly demurred at Friday’s practice (like Brunner last week) when asked what this game might mean.

Not so for Troy Perkins. After four years—and a MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award—with United between ’04 and ’07, Perkins returned from two years in Norway as the conquering hero in 2010. Last year, however, was a disaster in multiple ways for D.C. both as a team and Perkins as an individual. Perkins says he’s still upset with how things went down, and how he felt he was made to be the scapegoat.

Could they, like Brunner before them, have an extra part to play in this week's match?

First Goal, First Goal, First Goal
It almost seems too simple that soccer shouldn’t be boiled down this easily, but honestly it’s true: the first goal probably wins this game—or at least keeps that team from losing. The Timbers are 5-0-0 when they score first this year, 0-3-2 when scored against first; D.C. is 3-0-1 with the first goal, 0-4-2 without it. Also, the home team has scored the first goal in every Timbers game this year. Just please don’t leave the stadium or switch off your TV once someone scores…

Continuity Breeding Success
After early season adjustments for injury and lack of form, the Timbers have had the exact same starting XI in each of the last four games; the Timbers are also 3-0-1 in those four games. Is success a cause, or effect, of the solidity of the team? Head coach John Spencer says it’s a little bit of both, but certainly it’s a sign of how this team is growing that the staff has settled on their best team. What’s also helping right now is the subs have been the same: Ryan Pore, Sal Zizzo, and/or James Marcelin for each of those four games.

D.C., on the other hand, has been quite the opposite this year. They have had 23 different starters in their ten games, the highest number in MLS. While it’s helpful to give lots of players experience, it’s also a clue that they’re not yet sure about their best combinations—and their 3-4-3 record would reflect that. Their defense has now become settled, with the same four starting the last three games—two of them rookies—but injuries/knocks to Charlie Davies, Josh Wolff, and Santino Quaranta (who replaced Davies when he got hurt early in their last game) mean head coach Ben Olson likely has more shuffling to do this week.

Watch Out For Their Wings
It’s been no secret this year that the Timbers want to create their attacks from the outside, with Kalif Alhassan and Darlington Nagbe initiating the offense, outside backs Rodney Wallace and Jeremy Hall bombing forward in support, and sub Sal Zizzo adding a spark in the second half of the last few matches. Well, there’s going to be some defending for those guys to do Sunday against D.C. United.

The Black-and-Red already had quality on the outsides, with Chris Pontius second on the team in goals and first in shots, and 18-year-old star Andy Najar the team leader in assists. With the aforementioned injuries potentially limiting Davies and Wolff, look for those two to be working even harder to search for that crucial away goal.

Keep An Eye On The Ref
I usually don’t mention officials in these previews because I think they’re an overrated part of the game, which is to say they’re made scapegoats for faults of the teams and players. However, Sunday’s ref, Geoff Gamble, will be in charge of just his second MLS game. Last week he oversaw Seattle’s last-second 1-0 win over Kansas City, giving out five yellow cards and whistling 29 fouls, fairly high totals both. So, does that mean we’ll hear a lot of whistles in this game, perhaps creating set pieces chances to the Timbers benefits? Or will he correct the other way and leave the game alone? It’s something I’ll be keeping an eye on perhaps you can too.