Strong's Notes: Keep mentally strong (in brain-melting conditions)
After, at long last, ending their nearly-two-month-long winless streak, and finally passing the psychological barrier of their first road win in MLS, the Portland Timbers are now back square in the mix of the playoff hunt as they take on the Columbus Crew. The Timbers’ second straight road game—in a stretch where they’re playing five of seven away from JELD-WEN Field—comes in another busy week, after suffering a mini-heartbreak in the 3-2, last gasp loss to West Bromwich Albion Wednesday night.
The Crew, similarly, are trying to catch their breath right now. After a scoreless draw at home last weekend with San Jose, they traveled cross-country for a 1-0 loss at the league-leading LA Galaxy on Wednesday, and traveled back across the Great Plains to Ohio on the same day as the Timbers did. Columbus comes into the game a similar team to the Fire squad the Timbers faced last week: plugging gaps left by injuries, frustrated with recent performances, not giving up many goals, but not scoring many either.
It was a 1-0 home win for the Timbers in the previous meeting between the teams back on May 21st, the Timbers’ final victory before their seven game winless streak, and the last game they’ve won—of any sort—at home. Here are the key storylines as the Rose City XI look for a repeat performance in the Buckeye State:
New Faces in New Places
After a few weeks of rumor and speculation, the Timbers pulled off their first mid-season trade in MLS on Thursday, acquiring midfielder/defenders Lovel Palmer and Mike Chabala from Houston in exchange for Adam Moffat and allocation money. Task No. 1 with the two new players is making sure they fit in with the locker room chemistry, which—while it’s been bumped around a little bit in the recent barren patch—is the strength of this team.
Second will be figuring out ways to integrate them on the field; potentially as soon as Saturday. With indications that Palmer might be an option to replace the suspended Jeremy Hall at right back, and Chabala cover for the still-banged-up Rodney Wallace on the left side, it’s good timing to have them, but keep an eye out to make sure they’re on the same page with their new teammates on the field.
Watch the Wings
Columbus features, in my opinion, the best pair of wide midfield players in MLS, with Robbie Rogers on the left, and Eddie Gaven on the right. Both players have tremendous pace and attacking skill, and Rogers was on the USA squad for the recent Gold Cup. In the Timbers’ new 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation, there’s more pressure on the outside backs to mark those players, with the Timbers’ wingers—Kalif Alhassan and Darlington Nagbe—pushed higher up the field. Whoever stays more organized and disciplined on the outsides, but also can present a danger when given the chance, might go a long way to determining their team’s fate.
Young Faces for the Crew
Robert Warzycha’s team has been battered by injury, suspension, and international call-ups over the last month or so, but that time has seen a number of rookies step up to the challenge. Venezuelan Barnardo Anor has started the last six games as a second striker in support of leading-scorer Andres Mendoza; Eric Gehring, who didn’t play last year in his first season out of college has done well replacing the injured—and also first year—Rich Balchan at the defensive midfield position; and former Michigan Wolverine Justin Meram has made seven substitute appearances in the last nine games in support of the forwards while starter Emilio Renteria has missed the last two months with a quad strain.
As Timbers Nagbe and Alhassan can attest, young players will eventually hit a wall, and struggle to cope before reaching that next level of being a professional player. It’ll be up to the Timbers to try to accelerate that process with good pressure and intensity on Saturday night.
Keep Mentally Strong (In Brain-Melting Conditions)
If it’s fair to say the Timbers didn’t play their most beautiful game of the year against Chicago, and were lucky to see a number of sure goals come back off of the woodwork or Troy Perkins’ mountain-sized hands. It’s also fair to say last weekend saw perhaps the Timbers’ most mentally tough 90 minutes of the season. After Kevin Goldthwaite went down with a season-ending injury early on, and with players’ confidence beaten down from the recent winless streak, the team dug deep the rest of the way to hold on for a very important, and hopefully season-turning-point, win.
They’ll face the same kind of challenge against the Crew, but also against the elements: as of press time Thursday night, the forecast for game time in Columbus calls for 86 degrees, 70 percent humidity—making it feel more like 95 degrees—and isolated thunder storms. Just think back to the last time the Timbers played in weather that was quite that hot and humid…
Stoppage Time Notes
The Crew made a trade of their own last week, sending Andy Iro and Leandre Griffit to Toronto for midfielder Tony Tchani, who—if he recovers from some right knee pain in time—might be suiting up for his third MLS team this season on Saturday.
Crew goalkeeper Will Hesmer has played every minute this season, along with center back and captain Chad Marshall. Chilean right back Sebastian Miranda has played all but five minutes this year, while winger Eddie Gaven has been subbed off for just 29 minutes during the season.
34-year-old forward Jeff Cunningham will be looking for his 134th MLS goal against the Timbers, giving him the all-time league scoring record. He tied Jaime Moreno on the top of that list, and surpassed the great Brian McBride for the team scoring record, with his 90th minute winner at Vancouver on July 6th.
The Crew have a league-low four goals scored in the first half of games, but have conceded just seven, which is tied-for-third-best; their 17 goals scored in the second half of games, however, is second-best in the league.
Columbus leads the league with eight goals scored between minutes 46-60 of games, and that’s the Timbers’ most prolific 15-minute interval as well; the Timbers have conceded a league-high seven goals in the opening 15 minutes of games, and their eight goals conceded in the final quarter hour is tied for the most in MLS.