Strong's Notes: Keep the ball rolling

Timbers keep momentum forward in playoff quest

Sal Zizzo - Timbers vs. Union, 5.6.11

Photo Credit: 
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Editor's Note: Portland Timbers play-by-play announcer John Strong will miss this Saturday's match against the Philadelphia Union due to suffering from extreme flu-like symptoms. ESPN and Houston Dynamo's play-by-play announcer Glenn Davis will fill in during Strong's absence alongside Timbers soccer analyst Robbie Earle. Watch them call the game on ROOT Sports. 

However, just prior to coming down with the flu, Strong gave us his take on the Timbers' upcoming match against the Union and what he feels it will take to beat them and keep Portland in the race for the playoffs.

After a Mother Nature-created two-and-a-half week break, the Portland Timbers enter the stretch run of the season Saturday night as they play at the Philadelphia Union (4:30pm PT, ROOT Sports, 101 FM KXL Radio, La Pantera 940 AM). With eight matches to go, the Timbers are right where they want to be: tied with New York for the 10th and final playoff spot, controlling their own destiny, and with more games to go against the chasing pack than the rest of that chasing pack.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, have had some odd scheduling flukes lately but hitting them the opposite way: Saturday will be their third game in eight days, created by a rescheduled game at Real Salt Lake—to help RSL’s CONCACAF Champions League run in the spring—and a similarly reschedule game Wednesday night against New England—a game also pushed back for Hurricane Irene—that finished in an exhausting 4-4 draw.

The Timbers seemingly have the edge in momentum in this game, as they go for their first three-game win streak in MLS, as compared to a Philly side that is on a club-record seven game winless steak. But, when it comes down to the playoff chase, that stuff may just not matter as much.

Keep The Ball Rolling

The postponement of the D.C. United game was simultaneously a blessing and a curse; it was evident in the final minutes of the Chivas USA win that the wild month of August was taking its toll, and who knows what the players would have had left in the tank for D.C., particularly if the game was moved up earlier in the day, as had been suggested.

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At the same time though, most of the players say they wanted to play that game, to continue on with some of the best soccer they’ve played all year. In those previous two wins, we saw the defense—centerbacks especially—step up in a new way, and in the Chivas game, continue to keep the Timbers as the only MLS club to win every game in which they’ve had a shutout.

Those two games also saw the Timbers do something else they haven’t done a lot this year: play a complete 90 minutes. Even with the momentary dropoff that allowed Camilo to score late for Vancouver, the Timbers were able to hold on for the win, and not spend another postgame ruing the points they’d missed out on.

Get More From The Wide Players

The Timbers are blessed with three of the best young wide midfielders in MLS, in Darlington Nagbe, Sal Zizzo, and Kalif Alhassan. While that trio is responsible for ten assists, five of those were Alhassan’s from the early part of the season, and that type of production has dried up a bit. Despite all their potential and skill, they have one goal scored between them—Nagbe’s bomb against Kansas City in July—and the trio has let a number of chances go by the wayside, especially Alhassan, who leads MLS in shots taken without scoring a goal.

However, all is not lost. While the Timbers certainly need better production in front of goal from their wide players, they may get a chance against Philly. On Wednesday night, both of the Union’s wingers, Roger Torres and Freddy Adu, were prone to cutting inside, leaving acres of space for the opposition wingers to exploit. While there’s no guarantee those two will start against the Timbers, it’s worth keeping in the back of your head.

Exploit A Rattled Defense

Despite being in just their second year in MLS, Philadelphia spent all but the last few weeks atop the Eastern Conference standings. How? Their defense.

Led by Colombian veteran goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, and anchored by Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes in the center, they kept four clean sheets in their first six games, and allowed two goals in only five of their first 22 matches. Now suddenly, it’s gotten a bit loose back there:  the Union have conceded twice in each of their last four games, and let in four—all in the first half—against a New England team that doesn’t really need to be scoring four goals at all in a match.

The most glaring difference back there right now is the absence of Mondragon, who will miss the next few weeks after breaking a finger. While 20-year-old rookie Zack MacMath has a tremendous youth resume, he was being left hopelessly exposed by poor marking against the Revs.

We’ve spoken a lot this season about the up’s and down’s of goalscoring production. Perhaps Saturday night’s opportunity would be a good time to stop talking about that . . .