Strong's Notes: A Needed New Face
After Saturday’s massive sigh of relief that came with the 2-1 win over Vancouver, the Portland Timbers will now try to climb back out of the Western Conference cellar on national TV Friday night against the Colorado Rapids (7:30pm PT, NBC Sports Network, 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). Amongst the storylines is a return of sorts to where things started to really go sideways this summer: the 3-0 loss at Colorado on June 30th, the first of two straight such defeats on the road. Since then, however, the Rapids are 1-8-1, and have lost seven straight away games dating back to May 6th.
A Needed New Face
Perhaps the biggest talking point for Colorado in this game is the presumed debut of midfielder Hendry Thomas. The Honduran international—he had one start and one sub appearance at the 2010 World Cup—had been playing with Wigan in the English Premier League as a starter for two years before his minutes dried up last year and he made the move stateside. The transfer is key for two reasons from the Rapids’ perspective: for one, their defense has really struggled of late, most recently in their 4-1 loss at San Jose last weekend, and Thomas adds a defensive presence just in front of the backline.
But it’s also because of the player that Thomas--in a lot of ways--replaces that this is a significant move: longtime Rapids captain Pablo Mastroeni. Mastroeni has been out since the first two games of the season, suffering with headaches which seem to be related to a concussion he suffered in October of last year. Certainly they’ve missed Mastroeni’s play and leadership this year, and with no immediate indication of his return, this move sends the message that they’re not counting on having him back this season, a serious blow.
Stop me if you’re heard this before: a team with a proud history, and some natural advantages in home games—5,280 feet worth of lack of oxygen, in this case—has been unable to get anything right on the road, and it’s part of the reason they’re stuck at the bottom of the standings. For Colorado, it’s a 2-11-0 ledger away from Denver, with a joint-MLS-high 26 goals conceded in those 13 matches. Their last win, in early May, was earned with the team playing 11 on nine after two Dallas red cards, so you have to go back to March 18th, the second game of the year, for an away win against a full team.
It hasn’t helped anything that the Rapids have had their attack gutted by injuries for a second straight year. After returning in the late spring from an Achilles tear suffered last July, all-time leading scorer Conor Casey has been slowed by a lingering hamstring injury. It's a similar story for strike partner Omar Cummings—their combined goal total in 2010 lead the league—who’s only gone 90 minutes twice since spraining an ankle in May.
It’s easy to look at two teams who are seemingly eliminated from playoff contention and ignore them, figuring they’ve eying better fortunes in 2013. The problem is that belies the pride and hunger that, ideally, exists within everyone whose professional existence is predicated on playing—and winning—games. We saw that from the Timbers against Vancouver: a team that was simply sick and tired of not winning games.
The same will be true of the Rapids Friday night: a good core of this team remains from the 2010 MLS Cup winners, and if the personal motivation of pride isn’t enough, than the idea that jobs will be up for grabs in the offseason works as well. Or, how about this: the loser Friday night will be in last place in the conference, ahead of a return game in Denver next Wednesday. So yes, you’ll see two teams who’ve struggled this year, but two teams who also know they’re capable of much better.