The Portland Timbers return home to JELD-WEN Field to play the Columbus Crew on Saturday (7:30 PM, KPTV), a critical match for two teams struggling to climb up from their respective conference cellars.
Both sides stand on seven points, albeit the Timbers having played one more match, yet neither side is comfortable with their position early on in 2012 after much more positive starts to the season in 2011.
The Crew were among Eastern Conference leaders at this point a year ago, while Portland collected 13 points from 24 on offer by their ninth game last year. As Columbus fans fret over a tough road back to the playoffs, Portland supporters are already questioning whether their beloved boys in green can turn things around after a dismal run with a return of less than a point per match this campaign.
Two weeks ago the Timbers looked to have righted the ship after a 1-nil victory over then unbeaten Sporting Kansas City, but reverted to abysmal form in the last outing away to the expansion Montreal Impact in a disheartening 2-nil defeat.
Excuses abounded after that setback, complaints of a poor turf surface, missed calls, and a harsh penalty doing nothing to dissuade even the casual supporter from believing Portland’s woes were self inflicted by poor selection, formation, and execution. The listless performance, with no threatening shots on goal, was disappointing and demoralizing against a Montreal team that gave up a then league high fifteen goals prior.
Portland felt hard done by when injuries to Steve Purdy and later Troy Perkins forced them to use two substitutions and limit their options off the bench. Purdy had looked more comfortable than his predecessors at outside back, but the supposedly new solution on the opposite defensive flank fared even worse, Scottish defender Steven Smith unfortunate to be adjudged for handball on the penalty decision, only to prove even more culpable as he failed to track back when he watched his marker double the Canadian club’s lead.
As Smith still needs transfer paperwork to clear before earning another start, Mike Chabala will be curious why he was ever replaced, and hopeful of resuming his starting role. Perkins, meanwhile, is hopeful of returning to the lineup after Sanna Nyassi nearly tore his nose off with a sliding tackle, the Gambian lucky to escape with only a yellow card for his horrendous lunge, league officials not deeming the infringement worthy of further punishment despite Timbers’ manager John Spencer’s protestations.
To his credit, Spencer again held his hand up to take blame for the loss, but his tune is a tired one after a fifth failure in eight further entrenches Portland at the bottom of the Western Conference table. While the players on the pitch did little to take charge on the pitch, the side looked disjointed from the off, a repeat of formation with Lovel Palmer anchoring the midfield in a defensive role not resulting in the same success as against SKC.
Jorge Perlaza again showed why Spencer’s personnel decisions are repeatedly called into question, making the demotion of the playmaking Eric Alexander to the bench in the past two matches even more perplexing given the gaffer’s recent comments about one of his most productive players playing below par. If leading the squad in assists is a poor return for an outside midfielder, Alexander’s absence over Perlaza’s persistent promotion appear at odds with reality.
Owner Merritt Paulson was vehement in his post match retorts on Twitter that a lack of talent was not the issue, a position many would agree with, but then instantly wonder why it’s not being utilized more adeptly. Spencer’s tactics against SKC seemed right for the opponent, but were all wrong for an Impact side that leaked goals before earning their first clean sheet against the Timbers.
The Timbers Army hope that Spencer can get it right back home a the Fortress of Thorns, and that favorites will be cast aside for a winning formation, one that plays to Portland’s strengths rather than trying to respond to the opposition. Spencer has stressed that his side is an attacking one, but pushing two of his most talented players in Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara out of their natural central roles leaves the Timbers with little imagination in the middle of the park.
Granted, injuries to Kalif Alhassan and the still recovering Sal Zizzo remove some depth from the wings, but with neither expected to be startera at the start of the season the arguments about their absence hold little weight. Instead, Alexander and Franck Songo’o see themselves relegated to reserve duty while the manager unsuccessfully forces players out of position in misguided attempts to include captain Jack Jewsbury, Palmer, and Chara all on the field.
Injuries are something all too familiar for Portland’s opponent, and Crew manager Robert Warzycha will show no sympathy after his roster’s decimation leaves him without the benefit of choice in the weekend encounter. Winless in four matches, Columbus are coming off a draw and a loss in their past two home matches, giving up a late equalizer versus the Houston Dynamo and another late concession to the Vancouver Whitecaps to mire them deeper in the standings.
Big losses at key positions see backups coming to the fore, veteran goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum stepping between the pipes while second year striker Justin Meram hopes to fill the shoes of fallen comrades. Should Meram start, he’ll likely partner with Emiliano Renteria, the Chilean trying to get off the mark after failing to find the net thus far. If longtime Columbus stalwart Eddie Gaven can provide service from the sidelines, Eric Brunner and Hanyer Mosquera will be under pressure to contain a forward tandem hungry for goals.
In defense, Chad Marshall anchors a rotating back four culpable of conceding more goals than the meager Crew offense can produce, a theme also becoming all too familiar in the Rose City. Marshall will need to shut down Kris Boyd, who will be seeking more chances after failing to get a shot on frame at Montreal, the Scot hopeful Spencer puts players around him that can actually deliver the ball to his feet.
Should Spencer continue to play Nagbe out wide, he may finally see the light on Perlaza and opt to give new signing Mike Fucito the opportunity to score goals in his debut in Timbers green following a trade from Montreal. At this point, any change would be seen as improvement for a club that as yet does not live up to its billing as an attacking force.
A second consecutive match against a club in less than stellar condition puts Portland in pole position to bring the game to the visitors, and Spencer’s lineup will speak volumes of his intent against a Crew side that looks a far cry from the one that qualified for the playoffs last year. If the Timbers are to get back into playoff contention, they’ll need a manager that believes in their ability and proves it by putting faith in the offense to win the day.