Strong's Notes: Lions & Lambs

Disciplined defensive Chivas USA comes to to Portland. Our John Strong gives a preview

Casey Townsend, Chivas USA

Photo Credit: 
(Getty Images)

After one of the most emotionally crushing losses in their modern history, the Portland Timbers enter a second straight match with the goal of erasing bad memories and bouncing back strong. On Saturday they’ll face a Chivas USA team that has yet to really get things going in 2012, and certainly feels they’ve underperformed so far as compared to their quality on paper (7:30 pm PT, KPTV Fox 12750 AM The GameLa Pantera 940 AM). Given how the Goats have structured their team so far this year, the matchup with Chivas USA isn’t likely to provide the same kind of offensive fireworks as the one with Real Salt Lake did.

Lions and Lambs
The best way to sum up how Chivas USA have played this year: defensive minded. Whether by choice or as dictated to them by injuries, Chivas have spent much of the early season packing numbers behind the ball in their 4-2-3-1 formation, clogging up space, and attempting to be impenetrable. In many ways, it’s worked: led by goalkeeper Dan Kennedy and his joint-MLS-leading number of saves, they’ve conceded just three goals in four matches. However, those goals have come in a series of 1-0 losses, leaving them with a 1-3 record.

Offensively it’s been a struggle, to say the least. They’ve managed just one goal on eight true goal-scoring chances so far this year, and the goal came courtesy of a mistake by RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. It must be said that some of that struggle has been due to the quality of opponents they’ve faced. All four games have come against unbeaten opponents—3-0 Kansas City last week, 2-0 Real Salt Lake the week before, a Vancouver team buzzing from a season-opening win in their second game, and, where the stat kind of falls apart, a Houston team kicking off their season after reaching the MLS Cup final last year.

One source of optimism for them? Their next three opponents are a combined 1-8-2 right now—Portland, Toronto, and Philadelphia.

Who’s Here and Who’s Not
While it’s fair to point out that Chivas USA have taken on some good teams recently, it’s also fair to point out they’ve been bitten by the injury bug already too. Most notably, their star striker, Juan Pablo Angel, has been held out the last three weeks with concussion symptoms that date back to a collision with Portland’s Eric Brunner in the Timbers’ preseason tournament. In addition, two other regulars from last year—Michael Lahoud and Blair Gavin—have yet to play this year with injuries lingering from preseason.

So who do they have driving the ship right now? In addition to Kennedy, center back Rauwshan McKenzie, who played just 11 games his previous four years in MLS, has been incredibly solid at the back; Ecuadorian defensive midfielder Oswaldo Minda has earned high praise for his control of the middle of the park; and rookie forward Casey Townsend (above) has carried over a big preseason to be more of a factor than you’d expect from a guy who was playing college ball (Maryland) in the fall.

There’s also a local connection: centerback and U.S. international Heath Pearce played at the University of Portland from 2003 to 2005.

One Goal In It
Given the defensive nature of Chivas USA’s play, this game has 1-0 written all over it. The big question, of course, is whose goal that will be. The Timbers have already said that they expect a minimum of time and space with which to attack, and that if they concede first for a fifth straight match, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to get it back against a packed in defense. So, the broken record about scoring first plays on, and plays louder.

Another big key? Moving quick when you have the ball. On those few occasions when Chivas USA are pulled out into the attacking half, the Timbers have to win the ball and attack with urgency before their visitors can regain shape and defensive position. No wasting time, no wasting chances, and no falling asleep throughout the 90 minutes on Saturday. If the Timbers can heed those warnings, they can make sure last weekend’s loss fades quickly into distant memory.