The Portland Timbers return home this weekend for a Sunday match at JELD WEN Field against the Chicago Fire (4 PM, ROOT Sports), a contest of two teams eager to build on recent results. The former side hung its hat on defense with shutouts in three out of their last four matches, while the latter’s invigorated offense plucked points from conference leaders in a two match homestand.
The Fire’s previous two matches this season included a 2-1 win at Chivas USA, but the match prior was marred by a home loss to the Seattle Sounders by the same scoreline.
Speaking of the northern neighbors in the Emerald City, years back the Timbers Army and Fire supporters forged a friendly rivalry in a show of solidarity in opposition to the Rose City’s derby foes. Come Sunday, however, any brothers in arms sentimentality is cast aside for ninety plus minutes of utter lust for goals, with complete disregard for how they arrive.
Victims of Portland in both meetings last year, Chicago was the sacrificial lamb for both of the Timbers’ initial triumphs home or away, so the visitors won’t lack for motive. The Timbers Army will ache for the memory of the inaugural MLS home match to repeat itself, the opposition hopeful of avoiding a tradition of disappointment setting in against the boys in green.
The pressure of playing in the raucous atmosphere, particularly in the North End, is one noted by players around the league as an environment that offers a new degree of difficulty to the equation, captured well in MLS writer Matthew Doyle’s piece on the supporter stimulated impact on the league.
“Any time you’re playing here, or Seattle, or Philadelphia, or a bunch of other places, you feel it now,” said recently traded Danny Califf after Portland’s home opening win, a scintillating start to the season via a dramatic 3-1 comeback over the now Chivas man’s former club, the Philadelphia Union.
Califf, a player who could easily camoflauge himself amongst the many tattoos in the Timber Army, was paraphrased by Doyle thusly: ‘“This,” he said, meaning the crowd, and the noise, and the sheer oppressiveness of everything being Timbers green, “makes it much harder to get a result.”’
Section 8 supporters may be wishing this week that they had acquired a defender of Califf’s caliber, injury to experienced starters Corey Gibbs and Arne Friedrich putting the onus of containing Kris Boyd and Darlington Nagbe at the feet of rookie Austin Berry and second year starter Jalil Anibaba, and hope that goalkeeper Sean Johnson’s hands can provide cover for a patchwork backline.
Chicago still possess the defensive poise of Pavel Pardo, the Tricolores legend now settled into the side he joined at the midpoint last year, joined by the midseason midfield signing of Argentine Sebastian Grazzini. Captain Logan Pause and Guatemala’s Marco Pappa round out a solid central core, one difficult to break down and quick to counter.
Speed in transition is possible when you have Dominic Oduro bringing breathtaking quickness and nose for goal, the Ghanaian leading the Midwest club with four goals after sliding his way out of a slump on an assist from strike partner and countryman Patrick Nyarko.
The complex task of corralling these potent attackers is compounded by the suspension of Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso, the Gambian retroactively punished by league review of a play. The incident didn’t merit a whistle from the official in the run of play, the player’s arm connecting with Calen Carr’s head as they bundled over in an awkard but singularly non-malicious collision.
The decision left Portland manager John Spencer ‘flabbergasted’, a silly ruling by a league trying to protect players that even with the benefit of video review failed to see that the contact was inadvertent. Yes, the challenge was clumsy, but in the run of play he got the ball first (by a stroke of luck on his part), and the ref rightfully allowed play to go on.
This suspension does nothing to deter idiotic players from maliciously striking opponents. The only message it sends is that defenders shouldn’t track back to legitimately try and stop a breakaway opportunity for fear of belated retribution.
Enough proselytizing, as fortunately for Portland centerback is its deepest position, either Eric Brunner or the now recovered David Horst available for selection alongside Hanyer Mosquera. New starter Steven Smith of Scotland earns another go at left back, while Mike Chabala should return in place of captain Jack Jewsbury, who is doubtful to resume his recent right back role following a rough landing in the nil-nil draw against the Houston Dynamo in the club’s last outing.
The big question for Portland is in midfield, the successful return to the pitch of Sal Zizzo putting him in the running for a flank position, either Rodney Wallace or Franck Songo’o potentially pining for playing time while biding time on the bench. Diego Chara steps into his standard central role, while the most controversial choice of the collection coming by way of Lovel Palmer as holding midfielder when a distributor is required.
Spencer defends his selection policy with the evidence of clean sheets as a byproduct of Palmer’s inclusion, ignoring the inverse effect of a goal drought coinciding with his move to midfield. When queried as to the need for a change of personnel to put a greater creator in the center of the park (such as Nagbe, Songo’o, or Kalif Alhassan), he replied, “…so you’re fitting square pegs into round holes. Then you’re just putting a blindfold on and throwing a dart at a dartboard and hopefully it comes up trumps.”
Spencer continued, “We’re at the professional level, we’re not coaching Eastside Youth Soccer Club where you can do what you want and it’s youth soccer. We’re a professional level, you’ve got to play the players in the positions that they’re accustomed to.”
The obvious option to all but the gaffer is assist leader Eric Alexander, whose preferred role is central attacking mid, a position he’s still waiting to exploit as he remains tethered to the sidelines by current and previous managers trying to fit something in where it may not belong. One need only look back at every match Spencer’s shuttled Nagbe to the wing as proof positive that his tactical planning leaves something to be desired.
Spencer should consider taking his own advice and playing Alexander where he’s accustomed to, it surely can’t fare any worse than the blindfolded dart throwing management style he’s employed thus far. Unless this lineup suddenly converts chances into goals, his counterpart in the coach’s box Frank Klopas gains the advantage for Chicago.
This will be a crucial test for Portland as they look to marry a resolute defense, magic-less midfield, and a profligate attack into the attacking powerhouse owner Merritt Paulson thought Spencer and general manager Gavin Wilkinson promised in the offseason.
While a squad led by the premier protection of netminder Troy ‘Plastic Man’ Perkins has stopped the bleeding lately, it’s time now to take first blood and quench a goalscoring thirst in front of the fervent force of the Fortress of Thorns.