by Brennan Burns
The Portland Timbers make their first stop on a two match road trip to play Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center on Wednesday (1 PM, ROOT Sports), a battle of two clubs trying to maintain relevancy in the playoff race with the second half of the season fully underway.
Chivas walked out 2-1 winners in Portland back in April, a dispiriting home loss for the Timbers Army in a match Portland led before letting the visitors leave with all three points.
Following Portland’s 5-3 thrashing at the hands of Chivas’ HDC roommates, the Los Angeles Galaxy, it is now four matches this season where Portland scored first only to eventually succumb to defeat.
Portland’s interim manager Gavin Wilkinson chalked up the loss to a week of changes in the aftermath of John Spencer’s departure, and perhaps a too early introduction of a new 4-2-3-1 formation that looked half baked in its unveiling.
Wilkinson spoke of improved offensive chemistry as a result of the changes, pointing to three goals scored equaling Portland’s highest scoring tally of the season, but the fact that two of those goals came from set pieces is not convincing evidence that the new look will produce an abundance of goals on a regular basis.
Despite the positive spin on the result, the real concerns lied in the defense, particularly in the specialized midfield roles of Lovel Palmer and captain Jack Jewsbury sitting in front of the back four. Palmer’s play was so forgettable that he was removed at halftime, while Jewsbury was again invisible as David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane made mincemeat of Portland.
The failure of these two players in combination in midfield is well documented, yet for some reason Wilkinson risked his first foray into top flight management with a repeat of his predecessor’s faltering lineup, a move that may prove detrimental in his honeymoon period with supporters as they adjust to the temporary managerial transition.
The gaffer was lacking the option of first choice with Diego Chara suspended, who is sure to return after his one match missed for a red card, a much needed influence against the Goats in a rare midweek afternoon affair.
Opposite him, the hosts will be missing a key player in Oswaldo Minda, the Ecuadorean suffering a dislocated shoulder in training that leaves Chivas manager Robin Fraser minus an enforcer in the center of the park to counter Chara.
In their last league outing, Chivas drew nil-nil at home to the Vancouver Whitecaps, and followed that up with another dour result against a Cascadian side as they fell 4-1 to the Seattle Sounders in the US Open Cup. While the shutout against the Caps was another example of goalkeeper Dan Kennedy’s meriting an All Star nod, the lack of scoring is an all too familiar theme for Goats fans this season.
Only 11 goals scored in 17 matches, the returns are paltry for a team possessing Juan Pablo Angel, the veteran leading the club with just three goals to his name, a tally well below the standard required. There’s hope midseason acquisition Juan Agudelo could ultimately be the perfect partner for the Colombian, but a knee injury has thus far kept his countryman by birth from joining him on the pitch since his arrival.
And while the scoring production appears profligate, the provision fares no better, 12 assists one fewer than the Timbers 13, albeit in one less match. Unless they can improve in that area, Chivas’ chances of notching their first win in nearly a month look slim.
At the back, the Goats are difficult to break down, their backline solidified with the addition of Danny Califf, who joined the team on a trade from the Philadelphia Union not long after the teams played in the Rose City. He’s joined by former Sounder James Riley, who coughed up the ball in that match in a collision with Kennedy that offered Kris Boyd the opportunity to open the scoring.
Fresh off a two goal performance, Boyd continues to prove he can create goals even without consistent distribution, if Wilkinson can get his teammates to set him up more often it’s tantalizing to think what he could do with improved service. The return to the lineup of Kalif Alhassan, Eric Alexander, and possibly Franck Songo’o are the most obvious answers to Portland’s lack of delivery, the trio showing the most promise in recent appearances.
The traveling support of the Timbers Army will hope that can also be aided by the inclusion of Danny Mwanga, Califf’s former Union teammate looking like a compatible partner to the Scot in limited time together. Whether Mwanga’s training ground experience provides him any edge against Califf may be a crucial edge against a team that boasts the second fewest goals conceded in the league.
Fraser sets out an almost over-organized side, perhaps the culprit for the lack of creativity needed to open up opposing defenses. In Wilkinson’s first match in charge of the MLS Timbers, he put out the opposite, a team that looked disjointed in defense as spectating best described the style on display.
Playing against the Galaxy’s less heralded intra-city rivals, it’s up to Wilkinson to snuff out the stargazing and instruct his players to get stuck in early and often if they want to earn rare points on the road. After losing 4 of their last 6 games and still reeling from the change in the coach’s box, the methods need to be pragmatic rather than pretty for a club in need of a confidence boost.
The Timbers now stand as the sole team in MLS without a road win, if the Kiwi hopes to show his first result was a one-off, a first win on the team’s travels this campaign would be a welcome tonic indeed.
Brennan ‘Brenaldo’ Burns is the resident pundit and editor of Timberlandia. Brenaldo believes that backheels are the answer to most of life’s difficult questions.