Eddie Gavin, Columbus Crew
(Getty Images)

Strong's Notes: Ready for Battle

After their inspiring win over Sporting Kansas City seemed to break them out of their doldrums, the Timbers find themselves right back in the same place this week after a loss at the Montreal Impact. Searching for points, momentum, and a ladder out of the hole they find themselves in at the bottom of the Western Conference, the Timbers welcome a Columbus Crew team that is similarly looking around wondering what’s happened so far this season. The trick for Portland this Saturday night (7:30 pm PT, Presented by The Home Depot, KPTV Fox 12 | Timbers Television Network750 AM The GameLa Pantera 940 AM) is to put forth another battling 90 minutes of soccer to repeat what they were able to do two weeks ago.

Starting to find “a soccer team”
It’s been a frustrating beginning for the Crew in 2012, after last year making the playoffs for the 11th time in their 16 seasons, dating back to MLS’ launch in 1996. After an encouraging start, Columbus has lost three of their last four games, and the lone result in that stretch felt like a loss—coming back from a goal down to Houston to take a 2-1 lead, only to be pegged back to a 2-2 draw. What’s been more discouraging is that they’ve scored just six goals in seven games so far, and face a stretch of six of their next nine games—and three of four—away from home starting Saturday.

However, there have been signs of optimism. The four-goal draw against the Dynamo prompted coach Robert Warzycha—like John Spencer, a one-time Premier League player for Everton before playing and coaching in MLS—to say afterwards, “I saw a soccer team…not the scrappy team that may score or not.” That “soccer team” seemingly showed up the following week too, their last game, in a dominating performance that included a goal ruled out for offside, another for a foul, and a bicycle kick from a defender that came back off the bar. The only problem was that a 74th minute free kick fooled their goalkeeper and gave Vancouver a 1-0 win.

Dropping like flies
What’s hampered the Crew most so far this season is injuries. Longtime goalkeeper Will Hesmer is out for most of the season with microfracture surgery on his hip, leading longtime backup Andy Gruenebaum—26 games played in 6 years—to become the No. 1. Just in front of him, three different players have suited up alongside two-time MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall at center back. That’s in addition to Julius James—31 starts last year, who suffered a collapsed lung as he was trying to return from shoulder surgery—and presumptive backup Carlos Mendes, who injured his hamstring the week before the season opener.

The midfield hasn’t been immune, and the forward line is a complete question mark coming into Saturday’s game. Due to injuries and the inconsistent form of Emilio Renteria, the Crew started two rookies—Andy Schoenfeld and Olman Vargas—in two recent games, and the results were encouraging. That was before both suffered injuries in their last game that’ll keep each out about a month. So, Warzycha’s options against the Timbers include a season debut for young Justin Meram, pushing up a midfielder to forward, or leaving Renteria alone in a change from their normal 4-4-2 formation.

Ready for battle once again
Both games between these teams last year were tight, physical 1-0 wins; Eric Brunner scored against his former team in the home leg while a late deflected goal did the Timbers in back in Ohio in July. In talking to Timbers players this week, they expect the same kind of physical game this time around, least of all because they’re facing a team that, like themselves, knows they’ll need to really fight to get points during this tough stretch of the season.

Certainly there will need to be moments of quality, but it seems that it’ll be more about a full 90 minutes of dedication, fight, concentration, and battle that will lift the Timbers to a victory they sorely need Saturday night. Then hopefully  they can get back to where they were after that Kansas City game, with heads up, confidence lifted, and trying to start on the long path back up the standings.