Strong's Notes: Keep Tough and Strong to the End

Timbers will battle heat, Davis, Ching and more

In one of the most storyline-packed games of the season, the Portland Timbers continue their make-or-break August in the heat of Texas Sunday night (ROOT Sports, Galavision, 750 AM The GameLa Pantera 940 AM) as they take on the Houston Dynamo. Suddenly one result away from a season-high-matching four game unbeaten streak, the Timbers are also starting their longest road trip of the season, as they travel to Missouri on Monday to take on Sporting Kansas City.

The Dynamo are spectacularly similar to the Timbers so far this year: they have great quality, with one of the best assist-makers in recent MLS history, and one of the league’s great goal scorers over the last decade, in their ranks, and yet have been maddeningly inconsistent. Houston has just one loss in their last seven games, but has struggled to put together good performances back-to-back, and like the Timbers are chasing the tenth and final playoff spot.

Let’s take a look at some of the keys and storylines in this game; other than, you know, John Spencer, Mike Chabala, Lovel Palmer, and Adam Moffat…

The Heat
It’s not excuse making, it’s being honest I think: if you live and work, and play soccer, on a daily basis in the Pacific Northwest, you’re just not used to the type of heat and humidity that exists in Texas--especially in this scorching summer. At time of writing, Sunday’s forecast in Houston calls for 98 degrees—with a heat index north of 100—with 60 percent humidity, and a scary sounding “10+ Extreme” UV index.

Meanwhile, the Timbers’ final practice before getting on the plane was done in temperatures about 40 degrees cooler at JELD-WEN Field Friday morning.

This means a few things: first, the team has to make sure they’re hydrating well from before they even set foot in the Lone Star State and through to kickoff. Second, keeping the ball will be huge on Sunday, or at least being smart about when to press and chase the game. Third, and this apparently didn’t go too well in the 4-0 loss at Dallas in June, the Timbers will have to overcome the mental barriers that come with oppressive conditions like that, especially those players—or broadcasters, if we’re being honest—who aren’t particularly used to them.

Be Aware of Houston’s Weapons
Even though they sit near the Timbers in the bottom half of the MLS standings, and have scored the same number of goals this year, don’t think the Dynamo are some middling mid-level team. In left winger Brad Davis, they have the MLS leader in assists, and in the creation of goal scoring chances. In attacking midfielder Geoff Cameron, they have a player who can strike a good ball from distance, playing in a position—top of a midfield diamond—that’s caused problems for Portland this year.

In forward Brian Ching, Houston has one of the best goal scorers in recent MLS history, and a man that, even though he’s struggled with injury the past year, will pack the goals in if you give him a chance. And how about this stat? The Dymamo are unbeaten in the last nine games Ching starts, dating back to last September.

Also don’t be surprised to see new signing Carlo Costly make his first start: the 6’2” striker was brought in to give them a playoff push, and scored twice for Honduras against Venezuela on Wednesday night in an international friendly.

Keep Tough and Strong to the End
Numbers paint a big picture in this game: the Timbers have six losses in ten away games this year; they haven’t scored in back-to-back away games all season;and  they’ve conceded seven goals in the first 15 minutes of games, second most in MLS. Of increasing concern, however, is their ten goals conceded in the final 15 minutes, tied for a league-high, and 19 goals against in the final half hour, which is the most of any team.

On the other side, Houston’s nine goals scored in the final 15 minutes of games is second-most in the league, and last week against Philadelphia they, for a fourth time this year, scored a goal in the final five minutes to change the result (from 0-1 loss to 1-1 draw, in that instance). I shouldn’t have to remind you that the Timbers haven’t been stellar when it comes to late goals changing results this year…        

Those stats, combined with it being a road game, in horrible conditions, against a team similarly hungry and desperate for results, mean that if the Timbers want to get something out of the game, they have to be willing to fight harder, run faster, and be more ruthless than their opponents for the full 90—or closer to 95, really—minutes.

Fiddly Bits
--I keep saying it’s make-or-break in August; that’s because they play seven games, higher than any other month, including six on short rest—meaning less than a full week—and four away from home. We’ll have a pretty good idea of whether the Timbers have a shot at the playoffs by the end of the month. The upside? The Timbers play more games against the “playoff chasing pack” than the rest of that pack does, and so controls their own destiny.

--If Jack Jewsbury misses out on Sunday’s game with his hamstring injury—which, given the quick turnaround to his all-important return to Kansas City, is a good bet—it’ll be the first time since 2005 he’s missed three straight games.

--Kenny Cooper’s
goal against San Jose was his first in 15 games, dating back to April 30th against Salt Lake. But, with Eddie Johnson dealing with a concussion, and Bright Dike still working back to full fitness, his ability to use that goal as a springboard back to his “normal” self could be huge to the team’s fortunes.

--Houston’s Geoff Cameron—an attacking midfielder—leads the league in percentage of successful tackles, according to our friends at Opta, who also say center back Andre Hainault is tops in winning “aerial duals”.

--As a team, Houston leads the league in goals scored from inside the box (24 of their 28), and successful crosses (about 30 percent).