Kalif Alhassan, Timbers vs. Chicago Fire, 4.14.11
(Getty Images)

Strong's Notes: It's the wings, stupid

I’ve heard it said in sports that winning a championship is easy; it’s defending it the next year that’s the real struggle. By the same token, we can say that Thursday’s invigorating 4-2 win for the Portland Timbers over the Chicago Fire—one of the great nights in Portland sports history—was relatively straight forward; whereas coming back with the same energy, passion, and spirit less than 72 hours later is the true challenge. And I’m including both the physically exhausted players and the emotionally exhausted fans!

Into town now rides a bunch of cowboys from the Lone Star State, the suddenly filled-with-confidence FC Dallas. The two sides are actually quite similar right now: both had slow starts to the season—you know the Timbers story—while Dallas was 0-2-1 with just two goals scored after their first three games, and both now have burst to life in their last game with magnificent offensive displays with Dallas having hammered the Colorado Rapids 3-0 who beat them in last year’s MLS Cup final. That’s also true on an individual level. It was wonderful to see Portland’s Jorge Perlaza finally get on track with two goals, while last year’s MLS MVP, Dallas’ David Ferreira, shrugged off a few down games with a brace of his own versus the Rapids.

A slow start is nothing new to FC Dallas, who had just two wins in their first 10 games last season, and just one in their first nine in 2009. Sure, they would have hoped for more from their first three games, but last year’s 19-game unbeaten run, and upsets of Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy on their way to the final will certainly keep head coach Schellas Hyndman from hitting the panic button. The same can also be said for Timbers’ head man John Spencer, who’s shown tremendous calm and faith in his players by not blowing up the starting XI after the early losses.

Let’s take a look at what I see as the three keys to Sunday’s game:

The overture was great, but what about the encore?
It’s inaccurate to say that if the Timbers follow up Thursday’s memorable win with a poor performance and a bad result then Thursday won’t have meant as much, but it will leave a damper on everyone next week if that does happen. Of more importance though is the chance to really build some momentum before facing the Galaxy, RSL, and a three-game week nearing on the schedule. For the momentum to occur, the Timbers will need to dig deep and produce the same kind of effort, intensity, and hard work that they displayed for the rain-soaked 90 minutes against the Fire.

Can Jorge Perlaza stay in the goalscoring zone he found Thursday and perhaps bring Kenny Cooper along with him? Can Jake Gleeson—assuming he starts—shrug off the two late goals and keep playing with the same age-defying confidence he showed the last two-plus games? Can the holdovers from last year (Futty Danso, James Marcelin, and Kalif Alhassan) who moved into the starting lineup recently keep rewarding the faith shown in them by holding their spots ahead of more experienced options? Answers to these questions will be key to getting a win against the Hoops.

It’s the wings, stupid
I’m starting to feel like a broken record, but once again as I look at how the teams match up, I see how much importance each side places on its wide players, and how important winning that battle will be. We saw fantastic performances Thursday night from Portland’s Alhassan and Rodney Wallace on the left and Jeremy Hall and Steve Purdy on the right. All showed us the range of their talents, and in the case of Wallace, showing us all why the team was so interested in trading for him on the day of the MLS Expansion Draft.

Similarly, FC Dallas filters a lot of their attacks through the wings: the fantastic Opta analysis shows their outside backs lead the team in touches in each game, and their wingers aren’t far behind, as they show great cross-field mobility. The big advantage John Spencer has in this department is that if he wants to make a change from Thursday’s lineup for whatever reason, his options involve Darlington Nagbe and Sal Zizzo—not exactly your typical MLS bench players. Just as important to the Timbers being able to get quality passing and crossing from the wings, is their ability to stay disciplined in defense, because…

Dealing with Dah-veed
…here comes the reigning MLS Most Valuable Player: David Ferreira. The diminutive Colombian was second in the league in assists last year as he sparked Dallas to the MLS Cup final proving to be more than many defenses could hope to handle. A tremendous distributor of the ball when given time and space in the middle, he is also clinical in the final third, as evidenced by his two goals against the Rapids last week. At 31 years of age, odds are whatever you try to do to neutralize him is something he’s seen before and figured out how to defeat.

So, how do you deal with him? The easiest way, theoretically, is to make sure that he’s tightly marked at all times, especially when receiving the ball. If he’s not given time and space to pick out a pass, he obviously becomes less effective. Also of crucial importance is making sure his teammates who are all immediately making runs off the ball when Ferreira’s in possession, are being covered. Too often last week, Colorado players were watching Ferreira, worrying about what he’d do, while Dallas players were making unmarked runs into the box. And, as we’ve seen this year unfortunately, the Timbers aren’t immune to ball watching…

The final, more cynical but more common approach, is to try to hack Ferreira out of the game. He led the league in fouls suffered last season, and was used as example No. 1 when league officials talked to players in the preseason about the increased emphasis the referees were putting on “protecting attacking players.” He’s not called “The Little Bull” for nothing, but teams who don’t feel they have the skill or quality to defend him skill-wise will defend him with brute force.

I’d much rather see the Timbers neutralize him with good defensive shape and marking of runners, both because I think they have the quality and because that’s the “more sporting” way of going about it. But as it’s often said, all’s fair in love and war. If it means getting the three points, and a second straight win, you do what you have to do.