Strong's Notes: Heads Up
Following up on their magical opening night victory over Philadelphia, and on short rest by early-season MLS schedule standards, the Timbers continue their 2012 odyssey Saturday at FC Dallas (Mar. 17, 5:30p.m. PT ROOT SPORTS, 750 AM The Game, La Pantera 940 AM). On Monday night, Portland was able to overcome one of their biggest hurdles from their expansion year, being able to come back from a goal down to win a game. Now, they’ll tackle another major stumbling block between them and a playoff spot: getting results on the road.
This is maybe the biggest theme for the Timbers in 2012. Last year, their 2-9-6 record away from JELD-WEN Field was fourth-worst in MLS, and just a few of the points they left on the table in those matches would have meant playoffs. However, it wasn’t just missing the emotion from the home fans that really bugged them, it was poor starts away from home.
In the opening 25 minutes of away games, the Timbers conceded eight goals, and scored just four. What’s more, they were 0-6-1 when scored against in that early period, and 2-0-2 when they were the ones grabbing the quick goal. With the team already saying they needed to start better in Monday’s opener, focusing on that in Saturday’s game might be key.
Saturday’s opponents, FC Dallas, have been one of the better teams in MLS the past two years. In 2010, they rode the momentum from a record 19-game unbeaten streak during the regular season to the MLS Cup Final. In 2011, they were in second place in the league most of the season before fatigue and injuries caught up on September and October, leading to an early playoff exit.
Good as they are, Dallas will be shorthanded on Saturday. Brek Shea, recognized as last year’s best young American player, is currently away with the U-23 national team to prepare for Olympic qualifying; exciting winger Fabian Castillo is questionable after hurting his knee in their season-opening 2-1 win over New York; and 2010 league MVP David Ferreira is still trying to return from a broken ankle that cost him most of last year.
Add the fact that the temperature Saturday will be at least 20 degrees cooler than in last year’s 4-0 Timbers loss in Texas, and it may be a good time to be catching FC Dallas . . .
Big Battle Up Top
. . . Of course to say that not only temps fate, but ignores the other quality pieces Dallas have. Goalkeeper Kevin Hartman holds most of the significant career records for MLS netminders; centerback George John has been linked twice in the last year with a move to England, though was held out last week as he eases back in with the team; and midfielder Daniel Hernandez is one of the most experienced “fixers” MLS has, patrolling the defensive half of the field, and helping to maintain possession under pressure.
However, the matchup I’m most intrigued to see on Saturday involves new Dallas forward Blas Perez. The 31-year-old Panamanian is playing for his 15th team in his 15th year of pro soccer, and his significant international experience, combined with his 6’1” frame, makes him a handful. The Timbers’ centerback pairing of Eric Brunner and 19-year-old rookie Andrew Jean-Baptiste did very well to minimize Philadelphia’s open play attacking chances on Monday, but by all accounts Perez is a step up in size and quality as a target forward. With enough to deal with on the wings as it is, the Timbers’ ability to keep quiet a man who had both assists last weekend may have a lot to do with whether they’ll be starting their road campaign with as much success as they started the home schedule.