Strong's Notes: Timbers look to turn quality play into win at home

Play-by-play man John Strong takes a look at NYRB

Jeremy Hall, Timbers vs. FC Dallas, 4.17.11

Photo Credit: 
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Anyone who lives in a drier climate will tell you there’s a difference between a dry spell and a full-on drought. The Portland Timbers are certainly in a dry spell right now, with three straight losses and no goals in the last two matches—but in a 34 game season, that’s far from a full-on drought. However, the schedule isn’t giving them any easy chances to break out, with the Eastern Conference-leading New York Red Bulls coming to town for a Father’s Day matchup at JELD-WEN Field (7pm PT ROOT SPORTS; Galavisión, 750 AM The Game, La Pantera 940 AM).

This is the eighth game in the Timbers’ stretch of 10 out of 14 games at home which defines the first half of their season. Five wins out of the previous seven is a good start, but they’ll want to keep stockpiling points in the Rose City before playing the majority of the second half of the season on the road.

While still at the top of the Eastern Conference, the Red Bulls haven’t been at their best lately. After a 4-1-2 start to the season, with 10 goals scored and just two conceded, New York is just 1-1-5 in the seven games since, scoring 11 and conceding 11 in that stretch. Yes, they’re unbeaten in their last five, but that comes after a club-record four ties, and their first win in over a month last week against New England.

However, their forwards are starting to catch fire: living legend Thierry Henry has seven goals in his last eight games, compared with just two goals in his 11 games played last year. Alongside him is bruiser Luke Rodgers, whose five goals this season combines with Henry to give New York the highest-scoring forward pairing in the league.

Familiar Faces…Yet Again
For a third week out of four, a Timbers player will be going against his former team: defender Jeremy Hall spent his first two years with the Red Bulls, seeing his playing time decrease dramatically in 2010 after being pretty much a regular starter in 2009. In fact, Hall has as many assists (two) in his 13 appearances with the Timbers this year as he did in 37 games played in New York.

It’s not just a one-way street this week though, as former second division Timbers player Stephen Keel will likely be starting in defense for the Red Bulls. A member of the Timbers backline the past two seasons, Keel won a spot in preseason camp this year in New York, and has started the past three games as Rafa Marquez and Tim Ream joined up with their national teams for the Gold Cup

There are also two other second division connections on the Red Bulls’ roster: Keel’s likely partner at center back, Carlos Mendes, won a game in Portland in 2004 with the Rochester Rhinos, while goalkeeper Greg Sutton played against the Timbers four times while a member of the Montreal Impact between 2001 and 2006.

Test the Goalkeeper
The Timbers were credited with 18 shots in last week’s loss to Colorado, a huge number. However, only four of those forced Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens to make a save (including one which was an MLS Save of the Week candidate)—that has to increase if the Timbers want to get back to scoring goals in the run of play.

It’ll take a lot to test Red Bulls’ netminder Greg Sutton: at 6 foot 6, he’s the biggest regular starter in the league, and his two penalty kick saves in the past five games are a good example of how much of the goal he takes up (though he also had two PKs go past him in the last month, something his defenders need to clean up).

Starts and Finishes
It’s time for our weekly installment of “why the first goal will win the game” . . . only it’s not entirely true this time around. New York is the best starting team in MLS, with a league-high six goals scored in the first 15 minutes of games, and a league-high 14 scored in the first half. The Timbers, by contrast, have allowed a if-it’s-not-a-league-high-I’d-like-to-see-who-is five goals in the first 15 minutes.

However, what might be more important is how these teams are finishing games. For all their hot starts, the Red Bulls have been pegged back to a draw in four of the games in which they’ve scored first—tied with Colorado for the most in MLS—and their seven goals scored in the second half is second-to-last in the league. While the Timbers have been better scorers late rather than early this year, they’ve also conceded 10 of their 19 goals in the final 30 minutes of games. You only need to look back a week to know how devastating that can be.

Who’s Not Here
Of all the teams to lose players to the CONCACAF Gold Cup this month, none have been as gutted as the Red Bulls. Four regular starters, and a regular substitute, have been off with their national teams, including both centerbacks. They’ll be happy to see midfielder Dwayne De Rosario—one of the most dangerous attacking players in recent MLS history—return, but are still missing some very key players.

On the other hand, the Timbers are still without Steve Purdy, who’s away with El Salvador, though probably back for the Dallas game next week. Starting centerback Futty Danso is out for a few weeks with his shoulder injury, and of course coach John Spencer is suspended from the bench during Sunday’s game, but the advantage is still Portland’s when it comes to missing pieces.