Strong's Notes: Everyone's Best Shot
The Portland Timbers will take the field for the first time under interim coach Gavin Wilkinson Saturday night when they host a crucial playoff positioning game against the defending MLS champs LA Galaxy (8 pm PT, NBC Sports Network, 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940; Presented by CenturyLink). The visitors sit just four points ahead of the Timbers for the fifth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference and with games in hand over just about everyone else in the conference, this is the type of game the Timbers will need to start winning to make the playoffs in their second year.
In Our Last Episode…
When the teams faced off back in June, after the international break, the champs were in disarray: winless in seven games, last place in the conference, with a rash of injuries and suspensions, and a key international call-up. Unfortunately, it was a grind-it-out 1-0 win over the Timbers that sparked the Galaxy to life. Three wins in a week propelled them into the playoff places, the big stars like Landon Donovan and David Beckham found their mojo again, and all was right in Carson, California—at least temporarily, as two straight losses followed those wins, broken up by last weekend’s 2-0 victory at Chicago.
An underrated piece of the resurgence was the return of Josh Saunders: the team’s goalkeeper had missed all seven games of the winless run while dealing with off-field issues but has now backstopped them to all seven wins this year, and three shutouts in the past six games—after none until mid-June.
Another interesting thread of late for the Galaxy is the play of second-year midfielder Hector Jimenez. After making just two appearances last year, the Cal product has become the starter on the right win the last month, a capable deputy for Donovan, who’s been used as a forward of late in part because of Edson Buddle’s knee surgery in early June.
The Stars Still Shine Bright
Struggle though they may have, the LA Galaxy are still the champs, and they’re still the glamour side of MLS. Mega-brand David Beckham is still capable of scoring from any free kick around the box, and is the team’s co-leader in assists with Donovan, who’s one shy of 100 in his career—that would make him the sixth player in MLS history to hit a century of helpers. Donovan, who’s also scored more goals than any active MLS player, shares the team scoring lead with Robbie Keane, who’s returned from Euro 2012 with three goals in four games—two in their win over the Fire on Sunday on his 32nd birthday—and has scored eight times in 16 starts since coming to SoCal late last season.
And, let’s not forget about Bruce Arena: the most successful and most experienced coach in MLS has been a steady hand through rough seas, but also hasn’t been shy to give big runs to young players like Jimenez, and guys with local ties like Chad Barrett—former Oregon player of the year at Southridge High School—and the former Beaver and USL Timber Bryan Jordan.
Everyone’s Best Shot
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, as they say, and the same certainly holds true in sports. The practical application of being the glamour side, of having the stars, and of being the champs, is it’s like a traveling circus whenever you play on the road. The fans fill the seats, every media outlet crowds your practices, and you get the absolute top effort from every team you face. It’s a not-to-be-overlooked reason why the Galaxy have struggled so much early this season, and it’s a relevant factor to Saturday’s game as well. Despite two losses in LA this season, the Timbers remember last year’s 3-0 romp at JELD-WEN Field, and will certainly want to come out with a bang after this week’s coaching change. The question is, have the Galaxy figured things out enough to be able to withstand that shot, and fire back one of their own?