Kenny Cooper, Timbers vs. Chivas USA, Open Cup
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Strong's Notes: Timbers hit the road

On the back of their first home loss in MLS play to D.C. United, the Portland Timbers now take back to the road in search of their first away win at Chivas USA (7:30 pm PT ROOT SPORTS; 750 AM The GameLa Pantera 940 AMMLS MatchDay Live). It would seem a particularly auspicious time for them to finally grab full points in a road game, especially against a Chivas team that hasn’t been particularly good at the Home Depot Center this year.  However, as we all found out last Sunday watching the Timbers take on a D.C. team that was without two of their best players, the different between what should happen, and what actually does, starts with 90 minutes of hard work.

Here, as I see it, are some of the keys to Saturday night’s game in SoCal:

Have A Short Memory
It’s maybe one of the hardest things for an athlete to do, and in some ways the biggest sign of those who are highly successful: being able to quickly forget mistakes, and focus instead on getting it right the next time. While it’s certainly true that they can use it as motivation, the Timbers would be better served putting the D.C. loss into the rearview mirror, and instead of dwelling on what went wrong last week, put their attention on what they need to do right this week.

Timbers coach John Spencer cited poor practices as the seeds that were sown in the week before the Columbus game, but were only reaped in the D.C. loss. Everything I’ve heard this week suggests that his players took that to heart, and were much better on the practice field this week. That’s a good sign that they can be prepared to put in the hard work from the opening whistle against Chivas USA.

Don’t Panic
Just as those scores of intergalactic hitchhikers before them, it’s going to be key for the Timbers to keep their calm if things don’t go their way, especially early. In their last trip to LA—their last true road trip, since they bussed to Seattle—the Timbers allowed their heads to drop and lost sight of their game plan when the Galaxy put in three early goals. In fact, while most coaches will tell you the mark of a good team is how they respond to conceding a goal, it hasn’t been the Timbers’ best trait this season.

We all know by now how important the first goal is in MLS games: the Timbers are 5-0-0 when scoring it, 0-4-2 when conceding. However, the last four goals Chivas have scored have been equaled by the other team inside of 15 minutes (in ties with Columbus and Vancouver), and while they haven’t lost yet when scoring first, they’ve only been able to make it count for a win in two of five games. If that happens Saturday, even early, the Timbers just need to keep plugging away.

Forget Set Pieces
Well, not really, but hear me out. For the final few holdouts who aren’t yet acutely aware, the Timbers are the best team in MLS at scoring from set pieces, with 11 of their 15 goals—almost 75 percent—originating with a dead ball. The flip side of that, of course, is that the Rose City XI hasn’t scored from true open play since the Dallas game, 575 minutes ago.

It’s fantastic to score from set pieces, and as I’ve said it’s a tenant of a truly successful team to be able to manufacture goals when you’re perhaps struggling in the run of play. But, for all the extra work Kenny Cooper puts in at the end of practice with his thunderous—and spectacularly accurate—right foot, and for all the speed and off-the-ball cleverness possessed by Jorge Perlaza, it’s time for those two to start getting more chances to display their goal-scoring abilities. Perhaps against a Chivas USA defense that is without a starting centerback, has a rookie at right back, and hasn’t had a shutout in over a month?

I Have No Clever Way to Phrase This Point
One of the most cited statistics in soccer these days is possession, the carving up of 100 percent that tells us which team is spending more time on the ball. At its best, it shows us which team was controlling the flow of the game; at its worst, it’s a complete red herring for figuring out who was the better team. Consider this: would you say it was the Timbers or D.C. United who played better overall last Sunday? Well, the Timbers had 60 percent of the possession over the 90 minutes, anecdotally their highest total of the season. Does that square with your answer?

A similar truth—or lie, as the case may be—comes out of Chivas USA’s 1-1 draw with Vancouver Wednesday night. The postgame numbers show Chivas with 63 percent of the possession, a passing accuracy rate of 83 percent (to 73 for Vancouver), and more than 200 more total passes in the game. And yet afterwards, their players and coaches complained of a passive approach, and a further investigation of the numbers shows most of that ball movement going back and forth along the defensive line.

It’s true that you have to have the ball to score goals in soccer; it’s true that Chivas USA boasts of playing a possession-based game; and it’s further true that the last time the Timbers were at the Home Depot Center they spent much of the game chasing around the Galaxy’s superior passing and ball possession. However, that can’t be allowed to become a big part of Saturday’s game.

When the Timbers have the ball, they have to not only keep it, but make sure they’re doing something with it. That starts with seeing more of what the team is designed for, quality and dangerous play from the wings. Then, when Chivas USA has the ball, fight to win it back, but don’t get sucked into the role of tiring chase, which is a stated goal of Chivas in Saturday’s game.

This Can Be Done, So Go And Do It
There’s nothing that separates the Timbers from their first road win Saturday other than hard work, dedication, doing the things they should, and of course Chivas USA themselves. But, no voodoo, no wizardry, no conspiracy. It won’t be the end of the world if the Timbers fly home without three points; but, it would be a deserved reward for how this team has grown in their first two-and-a-half MLS months if they do.