It’s easy to look at Saturday’s game against the New England Revolution as just another hurdle to cross before the Timbers can get back home to JELD-WEN Field from this early season exile. Certainly there's a sense of fatigue about three straight road trips, two of them across the continent, and the final coming at the end of a three-game-in-eight-day sprint. However, Timbers head coach John Spencer has tried to kill off any such if we can just get to Sunday… feelings. “If you’re waiting for the first home game,” he said earlier this week, “you may not be in the team by then.”
It’s not a matter necessarily of the pressure increasing within the group to get a first result (i.e. win or a draw) in MLS after two straight losses; more a feeling that Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup win over Chivas USA might be the spark needed to get them over the hump, and truly off and running in their season. The recent win over the Goats wasn’t perfect in any sense, and certainly left plenty for the team to look to improve upon, but that’s exactly the point. For once, the breaks went the Timbers’ way; they scored goals, made big defensive plays, and were able to celebrate a win. Now they just have to do it in regular season play.
The New England Revolution come into this weekend’s game as one of the stronger teams in the early going, with a draw at title-challengers LA Galaxy—played in a monsoon—and a home win against rivals D.C. United giving them just their third two-game unbeaten start in team history. Last weekend’s game seems to be typical of the type of pattern head coach Steve Nicol’s team is looking for, with two early goals followed by strong possession, physical midfield play, and a grind-it-out final few minutes following a PK of D.C.’s own.
The battle for Middle Earth
This might be over simplifying a bit, but in the Timbers’ opener against Colorado, facing one of the toughest center midfield tandems in MLS (Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Lorentowicz), they got beaten up a bit in the middle of the park, and it cost them in terms of possession, chances, and obviously the scoreline. Against Toronto’s three-man front, Jack Jewsbury and Peter Lowry were much better holding onto the ball, breaking up what Toronto was trying to do—I lost count of how many times Lowry jumped in to force a turnover—and as a result the Timbers were, in coach Spencer’s estimating, “the better team,” despite the final score.
Now the Timbers take on a (depending on exactly how you define it) five-man midfield unit, led by perhaps the best center mid in the league, Shalrie Joseph. The 32-year-old from Grenada has had his off-field troubles but he’s come out like a man possessed in the first two games this season. Joseph has had a hand in all three goals the Revs have scored—two himself, assist on the other—and setting the physical tone in the middle that they want to be their calling card in 2011.
The task for presumably Jewsbury and Lowry, even if they don’t need to be in hand-to-hand combat with Joseph and crew all game, is to make sure the Timbers can play through the middle of the park to a decent degree, and that they’re not being run over when New England have the ball. We haven’t seen Jewsbury really go to battle yet, but the captain v captain matchup between him and Joseph might just be one to watch.
I Gotta Feeling
If the Timbers can once again minimize individual mistakes on defense; if Jake Gleeson can continue to show that his future is now, fulfilling some of the high expectations placed on him by the coaches; if the Timbers can at least get a stalemate in the middle of the pitch, and not cede that territory completely to the Revolution’s front; if Kenny Cooper and Jorge Perlaza can finally get on track in front of goal (and that includes the quality of the service they get from teammates), there is a feeling that Saturday night might just be the night for the Timbers to break through with their first win in Major League Soccer.