Strong's Notes: New Faces. Lots of them
Normally, it’s the job of fans and journalists to blow regular season games out of proportion, and for coaches and players to gently remind us—smirk on their faces—that “it’s just one of 34”. So, when a team spends the week telling you that the upcoming game is massive, it’s a massive game. Such is the case with Saturday’s Timbers’ home game against Toronto FC (8:00 pm PT, ROOT SPORTS,750 AM The Game, La Pantera 940 AM), with a midweek meeting against the league-leading Galaxy on the horizon included in those comments.
The momentum from the Chicago away win was somewhat short-lived, as the Timbers were unable to make the best of their chances in an eventual 1-0 loss at the Columbus Crew last weekend. With home games already scarce in the second half of the season, and the team enjoying this Rose City oasis over a stretch of five of seven on the road, there’s no overdoing how crucial getting points this week really is.
Just behind Portland in the chase for the final playoff spots is Toronto FC, a team that has undergone more changes than any other in MLS this season: their 33 players used this season is three shy of the all-time league record; they’ve signed nine new players in the last two weeks, and two more on Thursday; and their starting XI from just three games ago is now completely unrecognizable.
New Faces. Lots of Them
It’s been a complete roster overhaul lately for Toronto FC and coach Aron Winter, who’s still trying to find the right combination of players that can—arguably for the first time—make his Dutch “total football” system work in MLS. There’s definitely been a mix; MLS vets like former Columbus centerback Andy Iro, and ex-Earthquakes striker—and Oregon State Beavers all-time assist leader—Ryan Johnson; unknown finds like Guadeloupe international Eddy Viator, and defender Richard Eckersley, who played against the Timbers with England’s Burnley a few years back; and big-time foreign signings like Dutch forward Danny Koevermans and German national team stalwart Torsten Frings.
Amidst that chaos is the belief that the system in place can work, if given time. But time has been the problem in Toronto: with a rabid fan base that’s tired of still seeming like an expansion team, and a sports press that holds feet to the fire like none other in MLS, the Reds are on their sixth coach in just their fifth season in existence.
It makes the Timbers’ recent moves seem like nothing, but the addition of Lovel Palmer at right back stabilized—if only for the 90 minutes in Columbus—a position that hasn’t been quite perfect this year, and Mike Chabala put in a very solid performance on the left side Tuesday against Independiente. We’ll find out on Saturday just how well these new additions are gelling, and what kind of positive impact they’re able to have.
Yes, it’s been an almost overused theme this year, but it remains very true in this game. We all know the Timbers have allowed an almost-league-high seven goals in the first fifteen minutes of games, and are 0-9-3 when allowing the first goal. Well, Toronto has given up an actual-league-high eight goals in that opening quarter hour, and are 0-11-2 when conceding first. Anecdotally, too, they’ve started very well in the past few games, but when the goal hasn’t come, they’ve faded and collapsed as the game went on: against Kansas City last weekend, Koevermans was denied on a point-blank shot in the third minute; by halftime, Toronto was down 3-0, and eventually lost 4-2.
Be Smart With the Space
As we’ve seen in their new 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation, the Timbers have seemingly been enjoying more open space on the ball in the attacking half; it’s been that space that Darlington Nagbe, in particular, has been exploiting to make dangerous runs and start to really show how good he can be. With Toronto in their Dutch 4-3-3 system, and with a league-worst 41 goals conceded, expect to see lots of open on either end of the field on Saturday, much as there was when the two teams last met in March—albeit a match that’s almost totally irrelevant to this one.
This means two things become very important: the Timbers’ attacking players have to be willing and able to be positive, to run at Toronto’s defense, and be more ruthless with their attacking chances. Conversely, it’s going to be key that they’re not getting caught upfield, caught ball-watching, or caught not effectively clearing the ball away when given the chance; all mistakes that have led to killer goals against in recent weeks.
Stoppage Time Notes
Toronto’s 41 goals conceded in their 23 games so far is not only the most in the league, and by a long shot, but it also equals their goals allowed total for all of last season—the asterisk being it was a 30-game slate last year, as compared to 34 this season.
Our friends at Opta tell us that Toronto have converted just 7.5 percent of their shots into goals, the lowest rate in the league. The Timbers, meanwhile, have the third-fewest shots—not just on goal, shots total—in the league, scoring on 9.9 percent of them. Both teams, however, are putting about a third of their shots on goal.
Toronto played a game in the midweek, beating Nicaragua’s Real Esteli 2-1 at home in the preliminary round of the CONCACAF Champions League. With just four changes from their regular starting XI—or, at least, the starting XI they had in their last game—Toronto dominated the game to a hilarious degree, and yet just have a narrow advantage going into the return leg in Central America next week. Still, there’s hope that just their third win in all competitions since May can spark a revival.
- There was midweek action for the Timbers too, of course, beating Argentina’s Independiente 2-0 on Tuesday night. Sal Zizzo played perhaps his best minutes as a Timber in that game, giving the coaching staff an increasing selection headache as they debate whether or not to start the winger, and if so, how to fit him in with Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan playing well too. Also, Jack Jewsbury played about half an hour Wednesday night in the MLS All-Star game, and with a cross-country flight back on Thursday as his team put in their most full training session of the week, here’s hoping Captain Jack finds his tank full when he wakes up Saturday morning.