Strong's Notes: Embrace The Cup
What feels like just hours removed from their energizing 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake, the Timbers return to action Tuesday night when they host San Jose Earthquakes in the 2nd round of US Open Cup play-in matches. As the second leg of a three-game-in-seven-day stretch, it would be easy to allow this to be the “trap game”: a match-up with a struggling opponent, following a big win, ahead of another key league game; this is the one the Timbers would overlook and drop, or so the story goes.
It would be a big mistake to let this game slip through the cracks. Firstly because no one likes to lose, no matter the competition or the meaning. Second, because with a victory the Timbers would only need to beat Chicago later this month to enter the Open Cup proper, and with it the chance to chase glory, a CONCACAF Champions League berth, and the two-time defending champion Seattle Sounders.
Timbers coach John Spencer has some big choices to make in this game, as he decides whether to rest his exhausted regulars for Friday’s league game against Philadelphia, and give some of the younger and lesser-used players a chance to impress. A similar dilemma faces San Jose coach Frank Yallop, who’s also perplexed right now as he tries to figure out why his team has seemingly fallen apart in the last month, with three straight losses after a decent start.
Let’s look at what I’m identifying as three key areas to Tuesday’s match:
One of the more impressive parts of Saturday’s win over Real Salt Lake (snapping their 18-game MLS unbeaten streak, 3rd longest such run in league history) was the way the Timbers forced RSL to change their game. Suddenly a team that likes to play down the middle was forced to go wide, and playmaking center midfielder Javier Morales turned into a winger by the second half. On top of good organization, the outside back pairing of Rodney Wallace and Jeremy Hall stepped up to make numerous individual tackles once RSL players got isolated out wide.
That will again be key against a San Jose team that likes to get the ball wide. The fine folks at Opta tell us that the Earthquakes have completed 35% of their crosses this year, the highest such rate in the league. Also, in analyzing their match statistics, you see that right back Chris Leitch has been leading the team in touches on the ball the past few matches, and the highest number of passes has been going between left back Ramiro Corrales and left winger Bobby Convey, a pairing that’s known each other for 10 years. And, if Frank Yallop elects to play last year’s league-leading-scorer Chris Wondolowski on the right wing, cutting off the outsides will be of even more importance.
There was a reason Timbers coach John Spencer spent so much time talking to the media last week about the idea that his team had developed a reputation of being “mentally soft.” After leaking goals in the previous few matches, he wanted to see if his team hated that idea as much as he did. Turns out they do, as the Timbers delivered their most spirited and complete performance of the year in shutting down the most complete team in MLS, Real Salt Lake.
Can they do the same again? You have to expect San Jose to come out flying, given their recent struggles, and they did play better in many ways during Saturday’s loss in Philadelphia. If the Timbers can take control of the game early, and the JELD-WEN Field atmosphere starts to exert its influence, can the Earthquakes handle that pressure? Or will they crack? It’s up to Portland to pose those questions to their opponents.
Embrace the Cup
The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup—to give it its full name—has, unfortunately in my opinion, become a marginalized competition in recent years. There are many reasons for this, some of which were lamented recently by San Jose’s president on the team’s website, and I won’t take time here suggesting solutions. What matters is that too few MLS teams truly care about winning one of the oldest sports trophies in America. With a history dating to 1914, I’d love to see the Timbers be a part of the trend led, yes, by Seattle, to reverse that.
The league remains a key priority, and with a game coming up Friday, coach John Spencer will have to keep that in mind. However, I’m hoping both teams see the importance of this game Tuesday night. For the Timbers it’s not just a chance to get one step closer to the tournament proper, but if it is a changed-up team that’s out there, it’s an important chance for lesser-used players to show the coaching staff why they deserve more time.
On the other side, this could be a massive game for the Earthquakes. They’re listing right now; threatening to drift out of touch with the playoff race before the season really even gets going. Surely they know that stepping out of the league and into the Cup might be the perfect tonic to cure what ails them right now.
In fact, they need look no further than their opponents to see what can happen: when the Timbers hosted Chivas USA in the previous round, they were 0-2, with one goal scored and five conceded, a team trying to figure out who they were. Since Portland’s 2-0 win at Merlo Field, they’re 3-1-1, and sit inside the playoff picture. The trick for the Timbers Tuesday night is to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.