Strong's Notes: Formations, Changes, and more
The quest for another win stretches into a sixth week for the Timbers on Saturday night (8:00 pm PT, Fox 12, estrellaTV 8.3, 750 AM The Game, La Pantera 940 AM, MatchDay Live), as they return from the sweltering heat of Dallas for the “hey, it’s finally summer!” of JELD-WEN Field for their game against Sporting Kansas City. Whereas in previous weeks you could say the team played well and was frustratingly held back from a full three points, with the Dallas performance’s 4-0 scoreline, it was very possibly the low point of the 2011 season so far. The bright side? If last week was the low point, that means it’s uphill from here!
If part of the problem is that the Timbers are lacking a bit of confidence and self-belief right now, they might look to borrow some from Saturday’s opponents. After a season-opening win over Chivas USA, Sporting KC struggled through the rest of their 10 game, our-stadium-isn’t-done-yet road trip at 0-6-3, and were rooted to the bottom of the MLS standings. Now, and with a little bit of overlap, they’re unbeaten in seven games, having won three of the last four, and are the ultimate example of how a team can look completely different, even with the same players, with a boost of confidence.
Odds are you’ve seen by now the reports that the Timbers might be tweaking the lineup in response to the Dallas loss; Purdy? Zizzo? Johnson? But Timbers coach John Spencer isn’t the only one with his eraser out to change up last week’s team sheet. Not since the fourth game of the year has Kansas City played the same XI in back-to-back games, and coach Peter Vermes has had to do significant shuffling as they’ve navigated a recent stretch of six games in 20 days (including a U.S. Open Cup win on Tuesday night).
Another change will be enforced against the Timbers, after captain and 10-year veteran midfielder Davy Arnoud finally succumbed to the pain he’d been battling through and will have sports hernia surgery next week keeping him out at least a month. With left back Seth Sinovic also listed as out with a hamstring injury, there will be even more new faces popping up on Saturday night.
Off The Bottom
This incredible turnaround for KC has also given them a boost in the standings, as you might expect. Situated at the very bottom of the MLS table between May 1st and June 23rd – until their 2-1 win over Vancouver last weekend – Sporting could theoretically leap into the top half of the Eastern Conference, and surpass the Timbers in the overall standings, with a win Saturday.
The Late Show
We’ve detailed before how the Timbers have struggled down the stretch in games this year, being outscored 7-1 in the final 20 minutes during their now-five-game winless streak. As it turns out, Sporting KC aren’t much better: they’ve been outgunned 6-1 in the final 15 minutes of matches this year, and have the fewest goals scored in MLS from the 75th minute on.
Defense Finally Getting Going
I don’t know that it’s entirely accurate to blame the Timbers’ defense for the 4-0 loss to Dallas, given that the first two goals – the ones that really put the game out of reach – were scored on set pieces, when the entire team is back to defend. However, the days of the seemingly automatic shutout have faded away, and with them the Timbers tremendous success during April and May.
Kansas City have been the opposite: after conceding 17 goals in the first six games, they’ve let in just two in their previous six. Danish goalkeeper Jimmy Nielson and the back line—which features a finally-settled Aurelien Collin, a resurgent Matt Besler, and in their last match, Brazilian veteran Julio Cesar playing as a kind of “third center back” in a defensive midfield role—held a 339 minute shutout streak over parts of their last four matches.
Fun With Formation Definitions
Whereas most teams in MLS are going with some variation of the standard 4-4-2 this year, Kansas City like to mix it up a little bit. You’ll get different descriptions of what it actually is depending on who you talk to, but from what I’ve researched, it looks like they play 4-3-3 when they have the ball, and shrink back into a 4-5-1 when they don’t by having their wing forwards drop deep.
The fulcrum of the team looks to be the defensive midfielder (Julio Cesar last time out, Luke Sassano the previous few), as he forms the base of a “V” that includes his midfield partners and those two wing forwards. That seems to put pressure on the lone center forward to do a lot of work by himself, and maybe as a result, KC have struggled to find the best man for that role. Media darling Teal Bunbury has played just 50 minutes the last four league games as he goes through his sophomore slump, while rookie CJ Sapong— described as a “manchild” by his teammates for his size and strength—scored the first non-bovine goal at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park two weeks ago (look up the cow reference).
So, that all means I’ll be looking a lot at those wing forwards on Saturday night. Mexican national team legend Omar Bravo owns the left flank, and scored his first goal against Vancouver last week since his two in the opening day win over Chivas USA—with a sports hernia surgery in between. The right side has been on rotation the last few games, but if it ends up again being Graham Zusi, who’s detailed in our KeyBank Match-up of The Match, he’ll be aiming for his fifth straight game in all competitions with an assist.