Dominic Oduro, Chicago Fire
(Getty Images)

Strong's Notes: Finding Their Form

In a vacuum, Tuesday’s draw in Houston was actually a really good result for the Portland Timbers:  it was a point on the road—against the best home team in MLS dating back to 2006—which featured a shutout, and another example of the team fixing the problem of conceding late goals earlier in the season. Unfortunately, while the team was justifiably satisfied with the game, it’s harder to celebrate it given the lack of goals—and wins—in recent weeks. The next chance for the Timbers to break out, and get back to the team we all know they can be, comes Sunday against the Chicago Fire.

Finding Their Form
A 4-2-3 record and 4th place in the Eastern Conference may not scream at you, but when you look deeper, the Fire are playing some pretty good soccer right now. They’re unbeaten in their last three games—two wins and a draw—and have just one loss in their last six games dating back to the start of April. Those most recent games tell a lot: a final-kick-of-the-ball win at Chivas USA shows they won’t panic late; a scoreless draw with Real Salt Lake showed their defensive quality against one of the most experienced attacks in MLS; and a come-from-behind win over Kansas City last Saturday showed their best qualities against one of the other elite teams in the league.

With a longer lens, this shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Chicago started last season disastrously, with a 2-7-15 record though mid-August, and Frank Klopas coming downstairs to take over for fired coach Carlos de los Cobos. The Fire finished the season on a 7-2-1 tear, and remarkably ended up just three points shy of a playoff spot. All told, and with the midseason acquisitions of Pavel Pardo, Sebastian Grazzini, and the re-found form of lightening-quick forward Dominic Oduro, the Fire have just four losses in their last 19 games.

Settled Starters
Just anecdotally, it seems as if the last few games have included a bit of educated guessing when it comes to figuring out the starting lineup for the Timbers’ opponent. Some of that was injuries, some was squad rotation on short turnarounds, some was good ole’ fashioned competition for places. However, on the face of it, it would seem the Fire have a pretty stable group right now, with just two real question marks for Saturday.

The first is a key injury in the back: former German World Cup centerback Arne Friedrich suffered a strained hamstring last week, and will miss Sunday’s game in Portland. However, it looks like an easy tweak for the Fire, brining in second-year player Jalil Anibaba to that spot—where he’s already played some this year and last—alongside talented rookie Austin Berry. Dan Gargan, similarly, looks like he’ll just come right back in for Anibaba on the right side, as he tends to a nagging foot injury.

Everything else has been the same the last few games, the only question being how much time they spend in a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield—as was the suggested starting alignment last game—and how much time in a more defensive 4-4-1-1, which they’ve morphed into during recent games. Either way, expect a stout defensive team that’s hard to break down, and an incredibly dangerous counterattack led by Oduro and fellow Ghanaian speedster Patrick Nyarko.

Good Memories
Unlike the last few weeks, the Timbers can come into this game with positive feelings towards their opponents. The Fire were not only the opponent in the Timbers’ glorious 4-2 victory to open JELD-WEN Field last year, but it was also in Chicago last year that they won their first ever away game, featuring probably Troy Perkins’ best ever performance in a green-and-white shirt.

Does that guarantee anything Sunday? Of course not. But, in both games against the Fire last year, the Timbers came in on a rough patch—winless in their first three games of the year, and winless in seven through June and July—and came out with a win, a series of wide smiles, and a collective sigh of relief. How nice would it be to make that three for three against Chicago?