Strong's Notes: Throw Out the Record Books…
After a disappointing return from their three-week MLS hibernation, the Portland Timbers return to JELD-WEN Field Sunday to play one of the games, and opponents, long-circled on everyone’s calendar: the Seattle Sounders (Presented by PGE; 2:00pm PT, ESPN, 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). While Sunday’s game won’t likely decide once and for all whether the Timbers make the playoffs—accepting for a one or two point difference in the standings at the end of the season—it does carry a certain weight to it above some of the other games on the schedule. And while it is, at the end of the day, one out of 34, how the Timbers perform in the 90 minutes, and what direction it sends them in the weeks to come, could indeed have a lot to say about where they are come November.
Throw Out the Record Books…
…and that’s probably a good thing—for both sides. Certainly the Timbers felt disappointed in the result last weekend in Los Angeles, though one loss in their last five games isn’t the worst stretch in the world. In fact, it’s actually better than Seattle’s. Their three losses and three draws recently make up their worst six-game run since entering MLS in 2009, and has elicited the familiar “we need to get back to our real selves” refrain.
Where the two sides diverge is the larger context of those runs. Whereas the Timbers suffered an extended losing streak early this season, the Sounders started 7-1-1, and remain in fourth place in the West, seven points clear of a playoff spot at weekend’s start.
Changing Faces at the Back
So why the turnaround for the Sounders? It starts on defense, and it starts with injuries. In that 7-1-1 stretch to start the season, Seattle’s backline allowed just three goals in the nine games, with six shutouts. Since? They’ve conceded 11 goals in the last six games—ten in the first five of the winless run—and have been scored upon first in each of those games.
The first domino to fall was goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who was brought in from Greece to replace the retired Kasey Keller. A hip injury has kept him out since the start of May, and backup Bryan Meredith—who conceded nine goals and made just two saves in a recent four-game stretch—was replaced by third-stringer, and Amazing Race participant, Andrew Weber in their last game on Wednesday night.
They’ve also seen injuries to centerback Patrick Ianni (back, just returned from six games away), outside backs Leo Gonzalez (quad, has missed seven straight), Adam Johansson (hamstring, missed the last three), and centerback Jhon Kennedy Hurtado was sent off in their recent 4-1 loss in Montreal.
So who will coach Sigi Schmid line up in their “Super Cyan” kits on Sunday? Right back Zach Scott will be playing in his 30th game all time against the Timbers, dating back to 2002 and the USL era; Cuban-American defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, statistically the best destroyer/controller in MLS, has just returned from a two-game suspension; midfielder Alex Caskey, likely starting once again for the suspended Alvaro Fernandez, is a danger to shoot from distance, and is praised by Schmid for his “quick feet”. The forward tandem of Fredy Montero—the team’s all-time leader in goals and assists—and former US international Eddie Johnson is doing just fine despite the broken foot suffered by surprise goal-leader David Estrada.
Then there’s the small matter of who might be coming of the bench. Dynamic young midfielder Steve Zakuani hasn’t played in MLS since a horrific broken leg suffered April 22nd of last year—an injury which prompted a league-record suspension for its inflictor—but was in the 18 on Wednesday, and would love to leave his mark on a dramatic return if given the chance.
Finally, there’s Public Enemy No. 1 in the Rose City, “That Man” Roger Levesque. The Portland (Maine) native has played against the Timbers 28 times since starting his USL Sounders career in 2003, scoring 11 goals and registering four assists. Levesque has found himself buried in the depth chart of late, playing just one minute in their last ten games. However, given the history of the rivalry, and the way things always seem to take an unexpected turn, don’t be surprised if you see a shaggy-haired substitute elicit a roar from the traveling supporters at some point Sunday.