Ben Olson, DCU
(Getty Images)

Strong's Notes: Effective Tinkering

After a three-game-in-eight-day stretch which was unfortunately short on wins but encouragingly long on effort and intensity, the Timbers return to JELD-WEN Field Saturday for their penultimate home match of 2012 against D.C. United (7:30pm PT, ROOT Sports101.1 FM KXL / La Pantera 940). The unbalanced schedule in MLS makes this a bit of an oddity: a team that the Timbers haven’t seen in about a calendar year, and a game which, given the conference-specific playoff picture for United, and Cascadia Cup hopes for Portland, feels like it’s been scheduled out of left field. However, don’t underestimate how crucial these 90 minutes are for both sides.

No More DeRo
Despite not making the playoffs in the last four seasons, featuring a roster who’s longest-tenured player has only been around since 2009, and led by the youngest coach in MLS, D.C. United find themselves right in the postseason picture with just four games to play. What’s remarkable about that is they were actually outside the playoff places two weeks ago, before three wins in nine days shot them five points clear of the cutoff, and into a tie for the crucial third spot, which avoids the wild card round.

What’s even more remarkable about all that? It was done without their best player. 2011 MLS MVP Dwayne DeRosario was lost for the season to a sprained knee suffered in Canada’s World Cup qualifier on September 11th, four days later United began their charge up the standings. That’s in sharp contrast to what happened last season: wide-midfield-dynamo Chris Pontius broke his leg in mid-September last year, and the team finished 1-6-2, well outside the playoff picture.

Pontius deserves plenty of credit for stepping up in DeRosario’s absence, and both Lionard Pajoy and Branko Boskovic have a goal and an assist in those last three games, but the defense has been massive for United as well. Led by Bill Hamid, possibly the future of United States goalkeeping, they’ve kept back-to-back clean sheets for the first time this season, and that’s with two new players in the back as well: Chris Korb is starting at left back in place of the concussed Daniel Woolard, and 19-year-old Honduran international Andy Najar has moved from right midfield to right back.

Effective Tinkering
One other interesting note from their recent run of success is the role that Olson has played from the sideline; the game-winning goals in all three of their victories last week were punctuated by a recently-arrived substitute. Against New England, Lewis Neal had been on the field seven minutes before he swept home a first-time shot from the top of the box; Maicon Santos was ten minutes deep when he played a magnificent long pass that led to Pajoy’s goal in their 1-0 win over Philadelphia; and Branko Boskovic—who complained to the media about a lack of playing time just days before—dove to head home Pajoy’s cross against Chivas USA just seven minutes after coming on the field.

Yet, leave it to Olson to temper the excitement and the plaudits being showered upon him, telling reporters “let’s not go crazy here,” and pointing out these wins could easily have been ties or losses had a few bounces not gone the other way.

Long Way From Home
If DC United are to secure a playoff spot, and specifically one of those top three spots, it’ll happen on the road: three of their final four games are away from RFK Stadium, where they’re unbeaten in 15 matches dating back to March. That might be a concern, given that they had lost six straight on the road before the win at Philadelphia last Thursday. It’s especially difficult being on the opposite coast, which tends to be a recipe for failure for teams in MLS. However, historically, D.C. has been very good on the West Coast: taking away their 0-2-1 record in such games this year, they went a commendable 4-4-6—18 points in 14 games, better than the target average of just drawing on the road—in the previous four seasons in the Pacific Time Zone.

Which brings me to my final point: much of the media coverage of their stretch run has focused on their final day at Chicago, and listed games at Portland and Toronto alongside phrases like “the struggling…” or “an easier challenge.” Taking a look at the current standings, you can understand why those conclusions would be drawn; but, hopefully, the Timbers players themselves would be offended by the notion. Saturday presents another chance to show that shouldn’t be the case, and return to a time when trips to Portland were about bunkering in and hoping for a point, not envisioning a good chance to pick up steam heading into the postseason.