Strong's Notes: Take Your Chances
So here we are at seemingly another crossroads of the Portland Timbers 2011 season. While I understand the importance of avoiding hyperbole, and not placing overemphasis on one game of 34—particularly one that comes the first week of August—I think it’s also important to be honest about the stomach punch that was Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Toronto, the upcoming run of away games, and the ability to just “tread water” in the chase for the 10th and final playoff spot.
All those things would be true for Wednesday’s game regardless of the opponent, but when you throw in the league’s best team, two of its most marketable stars, and a national TV broadcast, it becomes an explosive combination. Whether that explosion occurs in the Timbers’ faces, or as a burst of propulsion behind them, is the crucial question.
There’s no doubting in my mind that the LA Galaxy are the best team in MLS: their 14 game, three month unbeaten run is the longest in the league this year, the longest single-season unbeaten run in club history, and just five games short of the league record. What’s more impressive is that during those 14 games—of which they’ve won eight and drawn six—Landon Donovan missed four while on USA duty, David Beckham missed five due to suspension or injury, and starting goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts has been absent for eight because of the Gold Cup and then a broken elbow.
I truly don’t believe it’s unfairly underselling the quality of the Timbers to say that it would be a Herculean task for them to beat the Galaxy; what would be unfair is to say they can’t. I absolutely think they can, and here are some of the keys and storylines I’m looking at going into this game:
Take Your Chances
We saw the Timbers do a much better job against Toronto than they had recently in putting shots on target, and making sure they were, if not scoring, at least forcing the goalkeeper to a save. Toronto’s Stefan Frei made nine stops on Saturday night, not only a season-high for a Timbers opponent, but also three times the season average for that stat.
The Timbers’ first goal, one of my absolute favorites from this season, was a great example: after two previous chances—Eddie Johnson’s shot that was deflected up onto the crossbar, and Kalif Alhassan saved 1v1—and within 30 seconds of Joao Plata putting one off the post, the Timbers moved swiftly upfield, and Johnson put a clinical finish past Frei. Those are the types of decisive, quick, meaningful goals the Timbers are capable of, and have needed to score more often this year.
Chances to score will likely be scarce Wednesday against a Galaxy team that has conceded the second-fewest goals in the league this year, and has maybe the most talented—and stable, compared to other teams—backline. Former Timber Josh Saunders is, bizarrely, one of four goalkeepers LA has used at some point during this unbeaten run, so you can see how good this team is at finding ways to keep their opponents out.
…Because If You Don’t
Sure, I can tell you that the Galaxy have the fourth-most goals scored this season, that their leading scorer is tied for the league-lead, that they have maybe the best free kick taker in the history of the sport patrolling the center of midfield, that they have the best goal-scorer over the last four years in MLS starting up front, or that they have an overlooked but tremendously dangerous shooter from distance lurking in the shadows. But none of that would change what’s already been a huge point of emphasis for the Timbers in the last few months: if you don’t concede, you can’t lose, and the Timbers, in particular, have been conceding far too many goals late in games.
Two other points to be aware of on Wednesday night: the Galaxy are very good at counterattacking, able to suck a team upfield with an organized and patient defense, and then break at speed, particularly with Landon Donovan running through the middle and carving up opposing defenses. Also, this team can score in bunches, as evidenced by the weekend’s mauling of Vancouver: scoreless after an hour, and minutes after the Whitecaps put a shot off the post, the Galaxy went on a four-goal rampage to cruise home with a win.
You’ll Get Your Chance, and probably Early
Scary as that Whitecaps game must have looked when being studied on tape, it also displayed the one potential weakness the Galaxy have: they’ve been slow starters of late. Whatever the reason—and their injury shuffling, opposing team’s attempts to clog the game up, and playing on turf have all been cited recently—the Galaxy have had a hard time getting underway in recent weeks.
During these unbeaten 14 games, the Galaxy have scored just three of their 21 goals before the 40-minute mark, excluding an own goal against the Rapids June 18th. In fact, they haven’t scored a goal in the first half of any game in the last month-and-a-half. Of course, they haven’t conceded a goal in the first half in two-and-a-half months, and they’ve been devastating late in games, but if someone—perhaps the Timbers?—can use those early periods to get a goal or two up…not withstanding last Saturday night, of course…
Stoppage Time Notes
The Galaxy have shut out their opponents in four of their last five games, and eight times during the 14-game unbeaten run; they haven’t conceded a goal to a defender all year; however, their four goals given up in the first 15 minutes this season (25 percent for you non-math people) is tied for the highest percentage of any team in the league.
Defender Sean Franklin, an All-Star starter last week, went the first three-and-a-half years of his MLS career without scoring a goal. He’s now scored in two straight games.
Keep an eye on midfielder Juninho; all three of his goals have come from outside the 18-yard-box, and there could have been more if not for some fine saves this season.
Timbers coach John Spencer calls Donovan “the best American player—by a country mile.” I have no stats to back that up, or anecdotal arguments to disprove it, I just wanted to print it again for emphasis, since there are so many fans who, for often very legitimate reasons, let their dislike of him overshadow just how good he truly is.
Same for David Beckham: call him whatever names you want, giggle at the underwear line or the Spice Boy lifestyle, but the dude can play, and he has a vision, touch, and ability to pick out a pass that’s beyond 99 percent of the rest of the league.
- Local connections: No. 2 goalkeeper Josh Saunders, stand-in for the injured Donovan Ricketts, has the Timbers’ USL-era records for wins, saves, and shutouts, from his four seasons here (2003-2006); reserve midfielder Bryan Jordan scored five goals for the Timbers in his rookie year out of OSU in 2007, and returned on loan for nine games the following year; recently-injured forward Chad Barrett is from Beaverton’s Southridge High School, and was the 2002 Oregon Player of the Year.