Strong's Notes: Identity Crisis
Following Wednesday’s disappointing game at Chivas USA, the Timbers now move to the searing summer heat of Texas on Saturday to take on a team similarly mystified at their spot towards the bottom of the standings, FC Dallas (6 pm PT, KPTV, Timbers Television Network; 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). The two teams tied at the foot of the Western Conference would hardly have expected to be in this position at midseason, and will both once again be motivated to show on Saturday night that it’s not who they really are, or where they should really be.
Injury Bug Biting Hard
So how does a team that reached the 2010 MLS Cup Final, finished fourth in the league overall last season, and features two MVP-caliber stars find themselves in this predicament? Well, a 13-game, three month winless streak—fourth longest in MLS history, snapped last Saturday in a come-from-behind win at Colorado—will do that to you. But even the streak deserves some explanation, and much of that can come down to injuries.
David Ferreira, the 2010 league MVP, returned two weeks ago from 14 months out of action due to injury, starting with a broken ankle last April. Brazilian winger Ricardo Villar similarly just returned from three months away with a foot injury; defender George John, who was last year’s MLS “will he transfer to Europe or not???” storyline, has missed the last two months with a concussion, same as captain Ugo Ihemelu. Most pressingly right now, newly signed forward Blas Perez is back at home in Panama—dealing with a death in the family and a sprained foot—leaving Dallas with no real backup option up top.
Then there’s the curious case of Brek Shea. Last year’s undoubted star, new wave on the national team, and US Soccer’s 2011 Young Player of the Year, Shea has had a bit of a nightmare in 2012. First, his lifelong dream of making the Olympics was smashed and fingers pointed at him as to why. Then, it was turf toe followed by a three-game suspension for kicking the ball at a linesman. After that, for the first time under coach Jurgen Klinsmann, he wasn’t called into USA camp. Things came to a head Wednesday night in the 2-1 loss at San Jose, when he was subbed off in the 64th minute, exchanged words with head coach Schellas Hyndman, and sat at the end of the bench, by himself, a towel covering his head.
The Ironman of MLS
That’s not to say all hope is lost for the men in hoops. First and foremost is one of the all-time MLS greats: goalkeeper Kevin Hartman. The 38-year-old recently passed an astonishing 400 games played—against the Timbers, he’ll make his 399th start—and continues to increase his all-time league lead in appearances, minutes for all players, saves, wins, and shutouts—109 and counting.
In front of him is a backline that, yes, has had its core decimated by injury but has seen a few new faces step up. Second-year man Zach Loyd has made right back his own after leading the team in assists in 2011, while experienced Colombian left back Jair Benitez adds a needed cool head around a very young centerback pair: 23-year-old Hernan Pertuz, and 22-year-old rookie Matt Hedges.
Two other parts that warrant mention, one of which has just arrived, the other won’t be on the field Saturday: first, Canadian defensive midfielder Julian de Guzman, who was acquired last Friday in a trade, adds more bite and experience to the middle of the park. Second, 20-year-old Colombian starlet Fabian Castillo, a player who—stop me if you’ve heard this before—is overflowing with potential, but who will be on the sidelines for the game against the Timbers because of yellow card accumulation.
All in all, it’s two teams who, regardless of where their confidence is at, should be plenty motivated to prove to themselves—nevermind fans or those of us in the media—that they’re not last-place teams. That kind of disproving statement, though, comes only through winning.