Strong's Notes: Have a short memory
After probably the most heartbreaking loss they’ll have in 2011, the Timbers return to action Saturday (5:30pm PT, Fox 12, Estrella TV, 750 AM The Game,La Pantera 940 AM) still seeking the end of their now seven-game winless run. For the third time in this stretch, which dates to May 21st, Portland entered the final 20 minutes holding the lead, as the Timbers have been outscored 8-1 in the late going of the past seven games.
Similarly frustrated right now is Saturday’s opponents, the Chicago Fire: even though their loss to the Galaxy last weekend snapped an impressive looking eight game unbeaten run, that stretch featured just one win, and staggering seven draws. In fact, draws have been the dominant theme of Chicago’s 2011 campaign, which features a league-high 12 ties so far—two shy of Dallas’ MLS record from last year—a league record six straight draws at home, and two stretches of four draws in a row.
Suffice to say, both teams are desperate for a win, both to get them off the skids of recent mediocrity, but also to keep them from slipping away from the pack that’s hunting the final playoff spots.
Have a Short Memory
Timbers goalkeeper Troy Perkins told reporters after Monday’s practice that the most important thing his team could do was to forget about what happened the day before against their biggest rivals, and focus totally on the Fire. That might be hard to do considering the circumstances of the loss, played in front of arguably one of the best atmospheres in MLS history, but it’s key to remaining focused, continuing to work hard, and finding a way to get out of this rut.
Chicago will be tasked with the same necessity of forgetting the recent past, which has featured a paucity of attacking success, and most recently included a game against the Galaxy where, after the Fire had come back to tie the game at one midway through the second half, David Beckham scored LA’s winner direct from a corner kick.
Who’s Not Here
The Timbers will be without, in my opinion, their most reliable defender on Saturday, as Eric Brunner serves his one-game suspension for the red card he received against the Sounders. Coach John Spencer said on Monday—surprisingly, given his reluctance to give lineup hints in the press—that Kevin Goldthwaite will take his place in the Starting XI.
Goldthwaite has had his ups and downs to be sure this year, most noticeably against New York last month, where his back-heel goal punctuated a three-goal rally, but his hesitation at the back in the dying moments opened the sequence that ended with the Red Bulls’ tying PK. The veteran defender looked awfully sharp last week against Club America, and certainly the team has confidence in him. Saturday will be a big test for him.
At the same time, the Fire are without two players for the game. Rarely-used defender Josip Mikulic was shown a red card for arguing from the bench in the final minutes against the Galaxy, but of more impact is the suspension handed down by the league this week to forward Diego Chaves for a rough tackle in that game. A regular starter and third-leading scorer, Chaves hasn’t scored since April and wasn’t in the XI for the LA game, so it’s questionable how much of an impact the suspension needs to have for the Fire.
Attacking with Speed
While it’s officially unclear if the Timbers will continue with their changed formation against Chicago, what was clear was the effectiveness of the 4-3-3/4-5-1 the Timbers played in against Seattle, both from a defensive standpoint—James Marcelin’s job of breaking up opposing attacks from his defensive midfield position—and offensive, with Kalif Alhassan, Darlington Nagbe, and Jorge Perlaza given more open space to play with.
It led to the team’s first goals that had nothing to do with set pieces since the first Dallas game back in April, Diego Chara’s first assist as a Timber, and just Alhassan’s second assist—well, sort of, on the own goal—in his last nine games.
Speed will be key on the other side of the field against the Fire, as they feature two of the fastest players in the league in forward Dominic Oduro, and left winger Patrick Nyarko. What the Timbers want to avoid is situations like Eric Brunner found himself in against Seattle: a foot race running towards their own goal with one of Chicago’s Ghanaians. The trick will be to avoid those situations, both by good positioning and communication, but also by trying to prevent through balls from being played in the first place, which is likely the task of the midfield.
If, or when, things don’t go the Timbers way on Saturday, whether it be a goal against, a bad refereeing decision, whatever, the Timbers can’t close up shop, expecting the “here we go again” routine. Have no doubt, they will break out of this winless run, and I fully expect them to be in playoff contention come the fall, having seen how good this team can be when everything is clicking.
The trick is to keep that belief, and that work ethic, to pull themselves out of the funk they’re in, before it stretches so long that they really out of touch with the teams they need to chase down in the standings.
Stoppage Time Notes
- Like in the New York game, the Timbers came out hot with an early goal in the second half against the Sounders; Chicago has conceded a league-high eight goals in the first fifteen minutes of the second half this year.
- We all know the Timbers propensity for goals from set pieces, but they might want to continue with the chances they were creating from open play against Seattle: just 16 percent of the Fire’s goals against this year came from set pieces, the lowest percentage in MLS.
- Since their last meeting, the 4-2 win on JELD-WEN Field’s opening night, the Fire have a few new faces: 20-year-old Columbian forward Cristian Nazarit scored his second goal last Saturday since joining in May
- 6’3” defender Yamith Cuesta, also from Colombia, has emerged recently as a starter at centerback
- Oduro, who was known primarily for not scoring in Houston, is tied for the team lead with five goals in Chicago this year
- The Fire just signed 30-year-old Argentine playmaker Sebastian Grazzini this week, though it’s unclear how much he’ll pay on Saturday
Wfter a 2-2 draw at San Jose at the end of May, Chicago fired coach Carlos de los Cobos, sending technical director—and former US National Team player—Frank Klopas down to the touchline as his interim replacement; the team is 1-1-6, with five goals scored and five against, since that move.