Strong's Notes: The Final Whistle

John Strong on 2011's final match

It’s inaccurate to say that Saturday’s game against Real Salt Lake (6 pm PT, KPDXestrella101 FM KXLLa Pantera 940 AM) has no meaning; any time professionals take the field, whatever the sport, there is a pride in their performance, and a desire to do their best and get the best possible result. However, it is accurate to say that, for the first time since 2008, and just the second time in the last eight years, a Portland Timbers team will take the field knowing that, regardless of the result, their season will end at the final whistle.

Given the circumstance though, how they perform over the 90 minutes on Saturday will say a lot about who these guys are, what the badge on their chest means to them, and might have something to say about who returns in 2012, and who doesn’t.

At the same time, Real Salt Lake do have something to play for in this game, even though they’ve already secured their spot in the MLS playoffs. Currently they’re tied with FC Dallas—though hold the head-to-head tiebreaker—for third spot in the Western Conference. While some fans and pundits wonder whether it’d actually be better for them to drop into the Wild Card round and avoid having to play the Seattle Sounders or any other Western team in the playoffs, there’s no doubt Jason Kreis’ side will have their best foot going forward at home Saturday night.

Playing Out The String
In many ways, it is a sports team’s worst nightmare: being eliminated early from playoff contention, and still facing a series of lame duck games before their offseason vacation or workout regimen begins. The Timbers are lucky in that only one game falls in that category. The Vancouver Whitecaps, by contrast, were eliminated almost a month ago, with five matches left to play. New England was finished off with three matches left, and Toronto FC had two.

What’s interesting is to see how these teams have done in the “meaningless” games since. New England, as a veteran team with much higher hopes than last place in the league, has slumped to losses since. Toronto, with some optimism that manager Aron Winter finally has the right blueprint for success, held playoff-bound Philadelphia to a draw on the road, before hammering FC Dallas for a shock spot in the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stage next year.

And those Whitecaps, the team who sat at the bottom of the standings all year? Imbued with some new faces in the lineup, and a sense that places on next year’s roster were at stake, they pulled off back-to-back upsets over Real Salt Lake and D.C. United—all but killing off United’s playoff chances—in the weeks following their defeat to Portland. And you can be sure that those players who’ve performed well recently are in the good graces of the technical staff entering the offseason, to say nothing of the pride and good feeling they can take into the winter.

Choices, choices
A coach in John Spencer’s position has two ways he can take his team selection for Saturday. On the one hand, he can put out his best XI, giving the year’s stars a chance to get their curtain call, go for the full three points to end the season on a high note and get the best-looking record possible for the history books.

On the other hand, as we’ve seen Vancouver do, he could elect to play some of the younger players, the backups, the reserves, and give them a chance to not only get some live fire exercise against one of MLS’ premier teams over the past few seasons, but also try to impress as the technical staff plans for next year.

For me, he can’t go wrong. It would be wonderful to see the regulars go out for battle one final time, with heads held high. Kenny Cooper, with a brace, can hit 10 goals for the third time in his career; Jack Jewsbury can add to his career-high totals that have made him a candidate for MLS Comeback Player of the Year; Troy Perkins can become just the third goalkeeper in all of Timbers history to have double-digit shutouts in one season.

It would also be fun to see the Brian Umony’s, the Chris Taylor’s, and perhaps even the Jake Gleeson’s of the world get some time—a reward for a season’s worth of hard work in practice, and success with the Reserve team. That’s not to say that the Timbers are sacrificing a result if they go with a different lineup, far from it. More that with a playoff spot now on the table for RSL, it’s a choice of who Saturday’s game should feature.

Oh, There’s Another Team Too…
As mentioned, Real Salt Lake have plenty to play for in this game, and won’t likely be cruising into the playoffs with their regulars being given a night off, as we see in other pro sports. Firstly, they’re still in need of a result to stay above Dallas and out of a Wild Card round which, even though it might feature “easier” opponents, also has three days less rest before the first game.

But there’s more on the line for Jason Kreis’ men Saturday night. The team that started the season with a run to the CONCACAF Champions League final, and was trying to cement their place as one of the great teams in MLS history, has since hit a bit of a rut. After having their almost-league-record 18 game unbeaten run snapped by the Timbers in April at JELD-WEN Field, it’s been an up-and-down year for RSL. To wit, a five game win streak in August and September melted into four straight losses over the last month, and was only somewhat resurrected in a scoreless draw at rivals Colorado last Friday night.

Salt Lake is not only looking for some momentum Saturday, but they’re still reintegrating a number of players who have missed time through injury or suspension, most notably midfield playmaker Javier Morales, who recently returned from five months away with a broken ankle. One edge the Timbers might have is that RSL’s captain and midfield general, Kyle Beckerman, is serving the last of his three-game suspension for head-butting a Chicago Fire player a few weeks back.

So, it’ll be two teams in different places, with different motivations, and perhaps different looks, taking the field on Saturday night. Faced with the prospect of a long, cold Northwest winter without any Timbers soccer to watch, here’s hoping the Rose City XI can finish with heads held proudly high, and a boost of optimism as we head towards 2012.