Strong's Notes: It's all a matter of context
In a bit of déjà vu, the Portland Timbers find themselves hopping on an airplane Friday afternoon to play a road game, at altitude, and attempt to take the boost from a big home win with them to kick start a run of good results in the league. A week ago the flight was heading to Denver, but this time around they’re hoping for a better result as they head to the Wasatch Front instead to play Real Salt Lake (6 pm PT, KPDX, Timbers Television Network; 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940).
It’s All a Matter of Context
If you just read the headlines, you’d think RSL was in the exact same boat the Timbers have been, well, much of this season. Head coach Jason Kreis is wondering aloud whether they’re “jinxed at home,” and worried about the “angst” his attacking players are facing as they struggle to convert chances; the back line is constantly having to shuffle itself around because of injuries; and fans are fuming over a three-game losing streak, the team’s longest 2007. The silver lining? Salt Lake are still in second place in the Western Conference.
WATCH: Timbers prepare for RSL
It’s a sign of just how far this team has come under Kreis, and just how far the expectations have been raised, that a midseason swoon can so overshadow a still-very-positive placement midway through the season. Wednesday’s scoreless home draw with Seattle—usually not a result to be raved about at home—was seen as a giant sigh of relief, viewed by Kreis as the “glass is half full.”
Still, from five points clear at the top of the league to four adrift of the conference throne, it’s still been a rough patch for a team very much aiming for their first Supporters’ Shield victory as MLS regular-season champions. So how did they get into their slide in the first place?
The Bug Bites, Hard
RSL’s struggles start at the back, where they’ve suffered some crippling injuries of late. Center back Jamison Olave, 2010’s MLS Defender of the Year, has missed the last three games with a calf strain originally picked up in their US Open Cup upset loss to the NASL’s Minnesota Stars. His backup, Chris Schuler, has been unavailable for six games, and might still be a ways away, after aggravating a foot injury last month. Tony Beltran, an ever-present at left back, sat out Wednesday with a groin strain and it helped nothing when Kyle Beckerman, one of the best defensive center midfielders in MLS, was suspended for yellow card accumulation two games ago in a road loss at Columbus.
Add that all up, and a team that allowed just six goals in a run of seven games unbeaten, suddenly conceded seven goals in three straight losses. But all is not lost. First of all, the team is backstopped by Nick Rimando, one win away from a second-place tie in the MLS history books for all time victories. Kenny Mansally—a forward in New England before being cut, but who played left back alongside Timbers defender Futty Danso with The Gambian national team—is a recent addition and Kwame Watson-Siriboe—who’d sat on Chicago’s bench since the fall of 2010—stepped in tremendously last game against the Sounders.
The only other missing face for RSL against the Timbers will be Argentine forward Fabian Espindola, who will be suspended for yellow card buildup on Saturday—ironic as he didn’t start in the earlier game with Portland this year. Speaking of which…
A Dish Best Served At a Predicted 95 Degrees
Whether or not players truly dwell on such things, it certainly won’t prevent the journalists: both teams have cause for revenge on Saturday night. For RSL, it was the Timbers coming to their house on the last night of the regular season, when they were in need of a win to secure—they thought—a top three playoff spot, and grabbing a 1-1 draw on a Futty goal in the 90th minute; nevermind having their second-best-in-MLS-history 18 game unbeaten run stopped earlier in 2011 at JELD-WEN Field.
For the Timbers, well, you probably remember it: March 31, after Alvaro Sabario’s first half penalty, and Darlington Nagbe’s superb second-half double—his last goals to date, incidentally—the Utahans scored in minutes 89 and 90+3 to steal a 3-2 win and apply a good old stomach punch to the Rose City.
Either way, one team is likely leaving with some balm on an old wound—whether they’d admit it or not—while the other will be left fuming all the more.