Strong's Notes: Wring out the sponge
After another frustrating night where they were left rueing their missed opportunities, the Timbers end their three-game road stretch with that much more pressure to get a result as they play Sporting Kansas City Wednesday night (5:30 pm PT, Fox 12, 750 AM The Game, La Pantera 940 AM). While the spotlight is understandably on Jack Jewsbury, who returns from eight years spent playing and living with the formerly-known-as-KC-Wizards, that’s one of just many layers to this matchup.
After beginning their season with ten straight road games as they awaited the completion of their new stadium, KC are now in the middle of a nine-game homestand as they try to make up the ground they lost away from home in the spring. So far, so good, it would seem, as a 14-game, two-month unbeaten run was just snapped in a late loss to Seattle at home a week and a half ago.
Both teams are on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs, though both by points behind and by favorability of schedule it’s the home team that has the advantage. Here are some of my keys and storylines to Wednesday’s game.
Wring Out the Sponge
This isn’t just the longest the Timbers have been away from home on one trip—a full seven days by the time they return on Thursday—and isn’t just the early stages of a crazy stretch of games on short rest; it’s an awfully quick turnaround from Sunday night’s exhausting chase of an early 2-0 deficit in the heat and humidity of Texas.
The difference between a playoff spot in their first MLS season, and having to watch from the couch, comes down to very small moments as we’re learning. The key right now is for the Timbers to push themselves to use every ounce of energy and drive to make sure those moments are going their way.
Like getting every last drop from a damp sponge, the Timbers have to remain sharp, poised, and dedicated to beat out their opponent in the dying stages, even when their legs have given out, their lungs burn, and fatigue is making their minds cloudy. Their ability to do that in every game remaining on the schedule will go a long way towards deciding whether they’re on couch or grass come late October.
Holes to Fill
The Timbers will be without two players who have become key in the past few weeks, Lovel Palmer and Eddie Johnson. Palmer is suspended after receiving his fifth yellow card of the season, three of them from his time in Houston. Tthe Timbers flew in Jeremy Hall—who was himself suspended for the Dynamo game from his red card in San Jose—Tuesday afternoon to have him start at right back Wednesday.
Of more concern, both from a soccer standpoint as well as from a personal standpoint, is Johnson. He’s back in home in Portland right now after apparently suffering his second concussion in quick succession Sunday evening, making his return from the original brain injury suffered in warm-ups before the LA Galaxy game. From a soccer standpoint, he was the Timbers’ best single center forward, and his absence may precipitate a move back to the 4-4-2.
Similarly, Kansas City are without some key contributors for Wednesday night. Mexican forward Omar Bravo, their joint leading scorer, is suspended after his red card in their last game against Seattle. Centerback Aurelian Collin—who scored the winner in Portland—remains out with a spinal fracture; Daniel Cyrus, who could fill in, is done for the year with a recently broken bone in his foot; defender Luke Sassano is out with a sprained knee; and, in case that wasn’t enough, longtime captain Davy Arnaud and midfielder Craig Rocastle are still weeks away from returning from their ailments.
KC will get midfielder Roger Espinoza back from a red card suspension of his own, but as we’ve seen in previous games, the key for both teams will be for those called into the XI to outplay their similarly-called-in opponents.
The Stoke City Model?
One interesting aspect of this game will be the danger posed by long throws: both Timbers’ outside backs, Mike Chabala and Jeremy Hall, possess the ability to fire the ball into the goalmouth, and before you scoff about the team’ s lack of a true “target forward” presence with Eddie Johnson out, don’t forget about the goal scored off a throw against LA.
Kansas City, though, might be the most adept in the league at using throw-ins as true attacking weapons; they’ve scored either three or four goals in situations that started with throw-ins, depending on how you want to define it, and center back Matt Besler, who has the Howitzer arm, has two assists this year directly from his throws. One of them was last game against the Sounders, the other? In Portland against the Timbers, of course.
Kansas City’s seven red cards this year ranks near the top, if not the top, for MLS teams, and most of them have been for very full-blooded—to borrow an English phrase—tackles. We saw Houston get physical early with the Timbers, might we see the same Wednesday?
After playing their first ten games away from home before the construction of their $200 million glittering LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, Kansas City are currently at the mid-point of a nine game homestand.
They’ll also be well rested, in contrast to the Timbers: last weekend was KC’s first without a game of some type in three months.
Kansas City’s emphasis lately has been on starting better, after quite a few slow openings have lead to late goals to grab points. With three goals scored before the 35th minute in the last two games, safe to say that coaching point has been heard.