Strong's Notes: The Concrete Jungle
After their second straight late-game climb back for a point in their 2-2 draw at Toronto, the Portland Timbers continue their longest road trip of the season Sunday at the New York Red Bulls on Sunday (4 pm PT, KPTV / Timbers Television Network, 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). If there was disagreement over what exactly Wednesday’s game meant—it was good to get up and play well in the first half, but not to drop two goals quickly on the second—perhaps Sunday’s performance and result will give us a better understanding. And a tall task it’ll be, against one of the premier teams in MLS, who currently are in second place in the Eastern Conference.
Concrete Jungle and all that . . .
Just the same as playing against the LA Galaxy, a game against the Red Bulls gives opponents a chance to take on some of the brightest lights in the game, and ideally raise their own level to meet the occasion. New York is led by Thierry Henry, who simply put is one of the best soccer players in the modern era of the game and who can still punish a team quickly if given the chance. The missing piece of their DP puzzle right now is Mexican legend Rafa Marquez, who just this week has been shut down again with a lingering calf injury that’s pretty much kept him off the field for the past two months.
The newest face is a long-time standout for Everton of the English Premier League, Tim Cahill. The two-time World Cup participant for Australia was a bit of a surprise signing, given that he had other options to stay in England, but such was his loyalty to Everton that he refused to play against them, and so came stateside. After just two weeks in town, his new teammates have raved about his leadership, his workrate in the midfield, and his aerial ability, which made him one of the most dangerous Premier League players on set pieces.
The Supporting Cast
Just as the Galaxy have to be more than their big stars, so too the Red Bulls have received sterling performances this season from some lesser known names. Surprisingly enough, the one most important to talk about is a rookie who came up in the team’s academy, Connor Lade. The young defender/midfielder has been praised by no less than Henry as the team’s “man of the season” and his hustle and bite on the outside of midfield—or right back, where he played last game—has been credited with spurring the team onto wins lately.
Amongst the other dangerous pieces are Sebastian Le Toux—traded from the Whitecaps in July—who is a danger making late runs into the box from midfield or as a forward. Dax McCarty, who’s emerged as a midfield boss of recent games, and of course there’s the former Timber, Kenny Cooper, who despite seeing his offensive output dry up recently still is amongst the MLS leaders with 13 goals.
There’s also an intriguing face between the sticks for New York: goalkeeper Bill Gaudette, who had been the No. 3 in LA, came over in a trade last month when Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Meara was shelved with a hip injury that continues to keep him out. The journeyman netminder has impressed quickly, with three shutouts in six starts, and he’ll be a familiar face from his Puerto Rico Islanders days; suffice to say Kalif Alhassan will have his head up quick when he’s on the ball Sunday…
The Red Bulls, high flyers as they are, still have an Achilles Heel: their road form. Despite being one of two undefeated teams at home, all they’ve wanted to talk about of late is getting better on the road, and with two away games quickly coming against conference leaders Kansas City and DC United, the Red Bulls players have admitted the circumstances are right for them to risk overlooking the Timbers. With both sides also saying that this is one of those matchups where the “lesser” team raises their game to the level of their opponent, it’d be wrong to dismiss the Timbers’ chances out of hand.
What it’ll take is a complete 90 minutes of hard, mistake-free, opportunistic work, just the kind of performance that the Timbers will hope their last two games has been building towards.