Jack Jewsbury, Timbers vs. Rapids, 8.31.12
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Strong's Notes: Moving the Chess Pieces

Just five nights after the Timbers earned their first back-to-back wins of the 2012 season, they’ll get another crack at the team they just leapfrogged over in the standings: the Colorado Rapids (6 pm PT, NBC Sports Network750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). The scheduling quirk of an in-season home-and-home series comes to its conclusion Wednesday night outside Denver, providing a rare chance to see how these teams will adjust and react to Friday’s game, as well as another chance for the Timbers to continue their climb upwards in this second half of the year.

Checking Off the Boxes
That was interim coach Gavin Wilkinson’s terminology about this team trying to grow past some of the issues that have dogged them in their brief MLS existence, conceding late goals, reacting to being scored against, and playing on the road being among them. Even the most cynical observer would have to concede that the Timbers have made improvements in the last five games, including the lone loss in that stretch at New York.

More than anything else, this team is playing with a greater confidence, a heightened assurance that they’re doing the right things, and the comfort that comes with—finally—being rewarded with results for that labor. Some of that was exhibited in the second half Friday night: despite not enjoying as much possession as they did in the first half, you didn’t sense nervousness about the team as they held to a one-goal lead. Even when Omar Cummings’ free header in the 86th minute flashed wide, there was no “uh oh” moment like we’ve seen in previous games.

Now comes the chance to tick off the biggest and most costly box still on their list, the one casting the longest shadow and prompting the most questions: winning on the road. The Timbers know how to beat Colorado after four all-time meetings, and the memories will be fresh. So, can they do it again, and this time at their place?

Moving the Chess Pieces
The biggest talking point that comes with a playoff series, whether two games or seven, is how coaches and players adjust and tweak between games, trying to both fix what went wrong last time, as well as counteract the familiarity which allows their opponent to anticipate what’s coming. This isn’t a playoff series of course, but it is a series for pride: the pride that comes from wanting to win each time you take the field, and the pride that comes from being able to look at teams below you in the standings the morning after.

For the Timbers, all signs point to an unchanged lineup: this current mix has been the same for three games and three really good performances in a row—accepting for Diego Chara’s recent suspension. So what needs to be different? Getting “more” out of each member of the team, says Wilkinson. Defensively, tightening up the few chances the Rapids created, especially the late header from Cummings. Offensively, can the Timbers be more ruthless, turning one goal into two? And, with a wider field in Colorado, will that allow more space for the likes of Sal Zizzo, Franck Songo’o, and Darlington Nagbe to influence the game?

The Rapids have slightly more they’ll be looking at for Wednesday night, the obvious being that they greatly want to punch back and send the Timbers home losers as they were on Friday. Forward Omar Cummings won’t be available while on international duty with Jamaica, and midfielder Brian Mullan, despite not being listed on the injury report, certainly took his share of bruises in Portland. Will a changed-up defensive line stay that way? And after an impressive debut, though many more minutes than originally expected to play, how can defensive midfielder Hendry Thomas do even better in his second outing?

The rewards for the teams are clear: for the Rapids, a rare win in a rough summer, and a chance to send the Timbers right back down to the Western Conference basement. For the Timbers? An unprecedented three-game winning streak, a first road win of the season, and some momentum entering their next game, which has been highlighted since the schedule first came out in the winter. Makes for an anticipated 90 minutes, doesn’t it?