Strong's Notes: Beware The Conditions
After gritting out a first competitive win against their biggest rivals since 2008, the Portland Timbers will try to turn a good day into a trend when they play Saturday at the Colorado Rapids (6pm PT, KPDX TV, Timbers Television Network; 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). It’s a return to where it all started for Portland, to the site of their first ever MLS game; hopefully the flight home is more enjoyable than after the 3-1 loss March 19 of last year. The Rapids are experiencing very similar frustrations right now to those of their opponents, so whoever can best overcome the hand being currently dealt will earn a big boost in the Western Conference playoff race.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a team is currently slumping right now after a series of late, crushing victories; injuries have prevented them from getting their best XI onto the field; a usually resolute home form is flagging; the coaching staff, frustrated by inconsistency at outside back, has brought in a South African trialist. Sounds like the Timbers in April, right? It also describes the Rapids right now, all the way down to Brett Evans being in practices recently after trying to earn a spot with the Timbers earlier this year.
The issues for Colorado really start with injuries: five surefire starters have missed significant time this year, and a handful of others have been held out as well. Star striker Conor Casey returned in early May from a ruptured Achilles that kept him out since July of last year, while Omar Cummings, who combined with Casey for the most goals by a forward pairing in MLS in 2010, has recently missed four games with a sprained ankle.
Speedy centerback Marvell Wynne, midfielder Jamie Smith, and one-time outside back regular Anthony Wallace have all been watching from the outside in as well, with the most frustrating being the injury problems surrounding Pablo Mastroeni; the team leader and 2002 US World Cup hero has been out since March with concussion-like symptoms.
Add in two straight losses by late, crushing goals, two home losses already this year—equalizing their total from each of the past three seasons—and the aforementioned frustrations at outside back, and it’s a Colorado team itching to get back to their 2010 MLS Cup-winning ways starting on Saturday.
Beware the Conditions
Like many places the Timbers travel to in MLS, games in Commerce City feature their own unique challenges, outside of the group of men wearing different colored shirts. As a sign outside the visitor’s locker room kindly reminds visiting teams, they have to deal with a mile-high altitude against the Rapids; and it’s not just the lack of oxygen, but the way the ball moves differently, and quicker, that creates issues.
Just in case that’s not enough, there’s quite a bit of heat there right now as well. Temperatures hit a record 105 degrees on Monday, causing the team to move practices earlier for the rest of the week; the currently-predicted daytime temperature of 91 on Saturday, while a lot more palatable than triple digits, will pose an issue of its own for a Timbers team that, at best, will be in the 70s at their own practices this week.
What can be done? Listening to the players, it appears not a lot. The biggest thing seems to be mental toughness, the ability to just “get on with it” and grind past whatever else is flying around. Given that that’s been an issue for the Timbers this season, it will present a stern test on Saturday.
Right Back Where We Started From
Your memories of March 19, 2011 are probably different depending who you are: player (bad), fan (on balance, good), broadcaster (a total blur), etc. It will, however, provide a good chance to demonstrate just how much this Timbers team has grown since the start of last year. Many of the names and faces have changed, and certainly so have the fortunes. If one of the biggest areas of growth is experience, and the aforementioned mental toughness, it should be a very different game this time around.
And, it’ll have to be: the odds are good that Colorado will be right around the fifth and final playoff spot come season’s end, and if the Timbers want to be playing on into November, it’ll need to be on the back of points taken at the Rapids’ expense. You can almost think of it as a three-game mini playoff series starting right now, and with two of the games coming in Denver, it’s not worth understating how important getting something out of the game Saturday could become the fall.