Strong's Notes: Dealing with defeat
No matter how many games I commentate on, or watch on TV; how many books I read about the game and its history; how many brilliant soccer minds I pick apart with questions or soak up knowledge from; no matter how hard I work to become an expert, there will always be a glass ceiling that separates me from a Jedi-like understanding of the sport of soccer. Namely, that I never played, or coached, at a high level.
One of the ways that distinction manifests itself is understanding the psychology of a team after a loss. Does it galvanize players to come out that much more fired up the next game? Does it leave a low-lying fog of emotional hangover? How do individually different reactions to grief such as that combine to affect the team as a whole? Having never been a part of a locker room in that state, I can’t say I know for sure. As ever, I’ll read what I can, look at how other teams react, ask people like Robbie Earle on our broadcast, but it still looms as a big question in my mind.
We’ll get two different types of answer on Saturday night as the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake, each trying to bounce back from a different type of loss, square off at JELD-WEN Field. For the Timbers, it’s fairly straightforward stuff: after the amazing homestand that produced two straight wins two weeks ago, they came home from last week’s game against the LA Galaxy with bumps and bruises and a disappointing 3-0 loss. Once again the specter of the early goal haunted them, as did a worrying trend of allowing a second goal in quick succession—a trend that head coach John Spencer addressed with surprising candor in the press this week.
Still in the midst of a 10-games-out-of-14 homestand, with three straight in the friendly confines in the next seven days, and—lest not forget!—Seattle looming on the horizon afterwards, there’s no time for a slump for these Timbers. Rather, one of the silver linings for Spencer is it opened the door for him to experiment some with the lineup, possibly handing starts to Darlington Nagbe and new arrival Diego Chará.
It’s a much more dramatic situation right now for the visitors, the only unbeaten team left in MLS, Real Salt Lake. After the MLS Hype Machine took their CONCACAF Champions League Final second leg to even more stratospheric heights than it already was, you can imagine the terrible thud that occurred inside the Rio Tinto Stadium dressing room following their 1-0 loss Wednesday night. There were already questions for head coach Jason Kreis as to whether he’d rest his regulars for the match against Portland, compounded now by the psychology of the defeat: are they that much more emotionally exhausted after that game? Or desperate to get the bitter taste out of their mouths as soon as possible?
The Kübler-Ross Model, aka The Five Stages of Grief
I might be getting a little over dramatic with this, but I think these teams’ ability to deal with losses is relevant to the match. Yes, it’s a long season, and yes, I’ll acknowledge you coach Spencer, it’s not worth getting too high for a win or too low for a loss. But when you consider the enormous amount of wind in each of their sails before their most recent defeats, it’s a challenge for both to move past it quick and come back out guns blazing on Saturday. For the Timbers, they know that this extended homestand is probably the key to their playoff position come season-end, and they have to take advantage. For RSL, they’re still one shy of the MLS record 19-game regular season unbeaten streak, and have the second longest road unbeaten run in league history. Shame to see that all die because of a loss in another competition.
Coaches Moving Around Their Chess Pieces
The debate was ongoing before the CCL Final second leg even kicked off midweek: what kind of team would Jason Kreis bring with him to Portland? The general consensus was that it would include captain Kyle Beckerman (suspended Wednesday), and anyone who didn’t go 90 minutes in that match. A similarly constructed lineup beat New England, on the road, no less, three weeks ago on their way back from the CCL semifinals in Costa Rica. But, how many of those “90 minute men” might demand a chance to get back to winning ways this weekend?
Similarly, Timbers head man John Spencer has the chance to do some tinkering of his own. Admirably faithful in the same XI that built a three-game unbeaten streak in recent weeks, he now has newly-arrived DP Diego Chará banging on the door for a starting spot, nevermind highly-touted rookie Darlington Nagbe. It’s always a good thing when you have more than eleven good candidates to make the XI, and if your philosophy is to always reward a winning lineup by keeping them (mostly) unchanged for the next game, it reasons that after a loss, it’s all up for grabs in practice the next week.
Defense Doesn’t Just Win Championships, It Probably Wins Saturday
Far be it from me to steal any thunder from our KeyBank Matchup of the Match, but it bears repeating here. RSL come into the match with the best defensive record in the league, just one goal conceded in four matches, and it came in the dying embers of their 4-1 win over the Galaxy a month ago. Widely considered the deepest roster in the league, even if Salt Lake go to their backups, as we’ve seen they were good enough to shut down the Revolution in a 2-0 win there.
Conversely, the Timbers have the worst defense (statistically, at least) in MLS right now, with 13 goals against in six games. More worrisome for coach Spencer this week was his team’s tendency to allow a second goal not long after the first. Mental toughness was a theme in the press for him, the ability to move past conceding a goal and “win the next five minutes,” a crucial coaching point in soccer.
Not only is it a matter this week of not letting the first goal immediately beget a second, the Timbers tightness on D will help their O, as it can be argued they won those two home games more by out-gunning their opponents than comprehensively beating them. And, if there is to be an adjustment period to work Chará, Nagbe, and whoever else into the lineup, not having to score three goals to win would be helpful.