Strong's Notes: Use The Magic once more
When you’ve only played 31 MLS matches anyway, the idea of one of them being the “BIGGEST IN TEAM HISTORY” can be a bit spurious, but an argument can be made that Friday night’s showdown between the Timbers and Houston Dynamo (7:30 PM PT, Presented by JELD-WEN, ROOT SPORTS, 750 AM The Game, La Pantera 940 AM) is just that. In a season full of big games, these last few have had increasing playoff impact with this match in particular taking that level of ‘bigness’ to a fevered pitch. (Pun fully intended).
Now, depending on the result, the title of “BIGGEST IN TEAM HISTORY” might immediately transfer to next week’s game at D.C. United, but we’ll stay focused on the present for now. Three points out of a playoff spot, with Houston and New York tied for the ninth and 10th positions, Friday night’s match could create a three-way tie at the edge of the MLS playoff cliff, creating drama that the entire league itself is certainly happy to see come from the new postseason format.
With so much riding on the outcome for both teams, it’ll come down to little things: energy, execution, endurance, and, more than likely, a little bit of luck as well. Here are a few of the themes that I see setting up the 90 minutes:
Use the Magic Once More
I can remember a Timbers Army tifo display from a few years back proclaiming “Your Magic Is Real”—I think we can say the same about the aura created by JELD-WEN Field this season. With all due, and tremendously accurate, respect for the effort and skill laid forth by the men wearing green jerseys, it’s obvious that the Timbers have by and large been a team affected by their home environment, and it’s produced some special moments.
Consider a team still grasping in the dark to find its way early in the season, then comes home—in the pouring rain, of course—to explode for four goals in a win over the Chicago Fire, followed up by a similar offensive display to defeat last year’s MLS Cup finalists, Dallas. In the weeks that followed, there were wins over Real Salt Lake—holders at the time of one of the longest unbeaten runs in league history—Philadelphia, and Columbus. That’s to say nothing of August’s improbable 3-0 thrashing of the LA Galaxy, or the back-to-back wins over Vancovuer and Chivas USA that righted the ship and got the Timbers back in the playoff chase.
The point is this: what the great capo Shawn Levy has termed the “Golden Triangle” of team, town, and Timbers Army has created an account of positive spirit and triumph that’s been drawn upon at some crucial times this season. It’s time for the Timbers to draw from that account once more, when it’s needed most, before having to finish the playoff chase in the dark unknown of the road.
Take Your Chances!
I’m not winning any “clever soccer journalist” gold stars by saying that the ability to put away the goalscoring chances that are presented will be a key, but when you look at the team’s recent form, it becomes huge. For all the accolades heaped upon Kenny Cooper for his goal in Vancouver, all of them much deserved, consider how much more tolerable those final 15 minutes would have been had he buried the arguably easier chance Darlington Nagbe gave to him in the 59th minute. Also, how much different would the standings look right now if Kalif Alhassan, or Cooper, hadn’t been denied by the bar around the hour mark in New York a few weeks back?
The story is similar for Houston. Last week they had a bucket full of chances to add a second goal at home against Chicago, only to be held to a 1-1 draw that kept them within touching distance of the Timbers in the first place. If indeed the awareness of the moment gets the better of the players out there on Friday night, which does happen sometimes in big time professional matches, scoring chances might be few and far between. The real difference in the game, and in the two teams’ playoff fortunes, may well come down to who can hold their nerve in front of goal, with opposing players charging down, and almost 20,000 raucous fans yelling for you to bury it, or be crushed.
Be Strong Through the End
When asked on our “Talk Timbers” radio show this week about the previous meeting with the Dynamo, Timbers coach John Spencer praised what he thought was one of his team’s better second half performances. Whereas so many teams come to the heat of Texas and wilt in the final 15 or 20 minutes, the Timbers seemed to get stronger, and only the earlier difference in who finished their chances, and who didn’t, dictated the 2-1 scoreline in favor of Houston.
Without rehashing the statistics, we all know the Timbers have been victims of many a late goal this year, and the lost points as a result could have them in a secured playoff spot right now. We’ve also seen how the Timbers have been stronger down the stretch in recent weeks, holding on late under intense pressure against Chivas USA, Philadelphia, San Jose, and most recently Vancouver. They’ll need to be at their final-minute-best again Friday night.
While the Timbers have struggled, the Dynamo have been masters of the late, late show this year in MLS. Their 14 goals scored in the final quarter hour of matches is tops in the league, despite Houston being mid-table overall in goals scored. They’ve stuffed in ten goals in the final 12 minutes to change results this season, including six times in their last 10 games, which has earned them three wins and three draws they wouldn’t otherwise have had—that’s a swing of nine points in a wafer-thin playoff race.
Whatever else, it’s going to be a lot of fun on Friday night, and I’m as excited to get to describe the action to the viewers at home as I’ve been for any game this year. If you’re not one of the fortunate thousands to have a ticket for the match, Robbie Earle and I will look forward to bringing you the dramatic twists and turns on ROOT SPORTS.