Strong's Notes: Staying in the present
After another road loss, the Portland Timbers are back at home Saturday night (7:30 pm PT, ROOT SPORTS, Galavision, 750 AM The Game; La Pantera 740 AM, MLS MatchDay Live) to complete their first season series in MLS against the team that humbled them 3-1 on opening night, the Colorado Rapids. While the Timbers enter on a bit of a lull following their 1-0 defeat at Chivas USA last weekend, the Rapids are arguably even more frustrated right now: despite a club-record-tying eight game unbeaten streak, the defending champs have finished their last six games in a draw, breaking the single-season MLS record. One team will come out of JELD-WEN Field with relieved smiles on their faces, while the other faces another maddening bank of questions regarding what’s going wrong.
Staying In the Present
While those of us on the outside see Saturday’s return game against the Rapids as a chance for revenge, and an important measuring stick after about three months of MLS play, those on the inside are ignoring all that. To a man, Timbers players asked after Thursday’s practice said they haven’t even thought about the season-opening loss as motivation, and are much more focused on simply bouncing back well from two straight losses.
While it’s true that you shouldn’t need to have Shakespearean thoughts of payback floating around one’s head to play well, I also know that Timbers players were most frustrated that they didn’t show who they truly were on the night of March 19th; how good they can really be as a team. We’ve certainly seen that since, and it is a great chance for those of us in the stands or press box to reflect on just how far this team has come. That being said, the more crucial test of character Saturday comes, once again, from seeing how well this group can rally back from two straight weeks of disappointing results.
Take Advantage of What’s Not There
After the season opener, the Rapids rattled off two more wins, setting themselves up as the high-flyers of the early season. Then, they came crashing back to earth. Injuries, suspensions, and what head coach Gary Smith has recently called “Groundhog Day”-like repeating of mistakes have held the Rapids to a 1-3-7 record since those opening wins.
From their Starting XI against the Timbers, Rapids winger Brian Mullen is serving the ninth of his 10-game suspension for breaking the ankle of Seattle’s Steve Zakuani; center back Marvell Wynne missed another game last week after aggravating a hamstring strain; and Omar Cummings has reportedly been scratched as he tries to return from more than a month away with a sprained ankle. In fact, after being the highest-scoring forward partnership in MLS last year, Cummings and Conor Casey have only truly played together this season in that opener against Portland, with Casey also missing time due to a hamstring injury.
They’re banged up, they’re shorthanded, they’ve given back two points in each of their last three games (scoring first, settling for a draw), and now they’re on the road at the toughest place to play in MLS.
…If Only It Were That Easy
Not that JELD-WEN can’t again become a place where the Timbers can hope for happier results, but this week is more about the Timbers fixing what’s troubled them than anything else. We talked last week about doing a better job to win the middle of the field, creating better chances for the forwards, trying to get a true open play goal for the first time since Dallas, but now something else interesting has popped up. Coach John Spencer said after last week’s game, and reiterated to the press during the week of practice, that some of his young guys are potentially “hitting a wall” at this point in the season.
It happens to young players in all sports: they burst onto the scene with tremendous skill and verve, convincing all of us they’re true stars in the making. Then, just about the time that the relentless pace and fatigue of the season starts to kick in, opposing teams start game-planning against them. That becomes the true measure of a star player: can you raise your game, adjust your style, to meet the increasing attention you’re getting from other teams?
Sal Zizzo has shown speed and danger but has yet to record a point this year; Darlington Nagbe is still being held back by a nagging injury; Kalif Alhassan has just one assist in the last five games. All three have shown flashes of—and are capable of sustaining—brilliance. They, like all young stars, must now find the next rung on the ladder.
From The Cutting Room Floor
Whereas the Timbers have found some helpful consistency in their lineups, the Rapids have yet to repeat the same Starting XI in back-to-back games this year…in defense, where continuity is most important, Saturday might be the first time in nine games where the Rapids have the same four players starting twice in a row.
Rapids defender Drew Moor has played 52 straight “Full 90s” over the last two-plus seasons, three short of the team record; his 55 straight complete games, dating back to his time with Dallas in 2009, is the longest active streak in MLS.
Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, still known to me as one of the difference-makers in the USA’s 2002 World Cup run, will be making his 299th regular season appearance on Saturday; just 13 players have played 300 MLS games, and teammate Tyrone Marshall (305) is one of them. The Timbers’ most experienced player? Jack Jewsbury, with 207 games played.
Winger Sanna Nyassi is on his way back from playing for The Gambia on Tuesday, a trip that Timbers defender Mamadou "Futty" Danso was originally supposed to be on before staying behind. Tyrone Marshall was originally going to be with Jamaica for the Gold Cup, but has told them he needs to stay and help out in Colorado, though might join up—along with Cummings—if the Reggae Boyz make the knockout stage.