The Portland Timbers’
recent three-game slide has forced the club within a hair of the Major League Soccer Western Conference basement. Fans are still blaming last week’s reffing fiasco for a late loss to the reigning MLS Cup champions, but the team’s performance has to get a lot better—and fast.
No team to visit Jeld-Wen Field so far has had quite the star power the New York Red Bulls
will bring. But the talent of the New York team is just the thing watch in Sunday’s match:Playing without coach: John Spencer
isn't expected to be on the sideline Sunday, pending a likely one-game suspension for being ejected from last week’s loss
to the Colorado Rapids. Let’s ignore for a moment the the larger issue here, that Major League Soccer’s players and coaches are ready to mutiny against the league for its quality of officiating. The absence of Spencer is sure to take a toll on the team. Whether it is adjusting strategy mid-game, making substitutions or calling plays for set pieces, expect some things to be different for the Timbers. Spencer is also a strong emotional leader for the team, and his absence—and the loss of his sideline energy—will hurt.
UPDATE: MLS officially suspended Spencer from Sunday's match and fined the coach $2,500. "John Spencer's recent public criticism of MLS officials was not constructive and will not be tolerated," MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a statement.
Scouting Thierry Henry: Even casual soccer fans are probably familiar with Henry, the Red Bulls’ striker. The list of accomplishments for the French star is daunting: The all-time goal-scorer and five-time national player of the year for France helped lead his country to victory at the 1998 World Cup. He has been named to the UEFA Team of the Year five times and led Premier League team Arsenal in scoring for each of his eight seasons with the club. At 33 he’s lost a step, but dropping down to MLS has let him prolong his career as an offensive star—Henry ranks second in MLS with seven goals, and he has four assists. He just needs one touch in the box to punch in a goal, so any time Henry possesses the ball is a time for the Timbers to be afraid.
Gold Cup absences: Portland escaped unscathed when players defected from their MLS teams to compete for their countries in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Teams like New York, by contrast, are down several players and leaning heavily on their depth. These weakened teams present a golden opportunity for the Timbers to test the depth of a stronger club. The Red Bulls are currently without starting defenders Rafa Marquez and Tim Ream, midfielder Dane Richards and oft-contributing midfielder Juan Agudelo, all of whose national teams advanced in the tournament. Starting midfielder Joel Lindpere is also questionable with a foot contusion. This leaves the Red Bulls weak on their back line and will force them to either play a conservative formation that buoys the defensive backs, or attack as usual and take their chances with a Timbers offense that hasn’t scored in the run of play since April 30.
Calm in the box: Portland was able to possess the ball offensively and put together threatening attacks against the Rapids on Saturday. But finishing was a whole new headache. The Timbers took 18 shots and ended up shut out. Several uncontested shots -- including those by Jorge Perlaza, Darlington Nagbe and Ryan Pore -- misfired as the players either rushed their shot or went wildly errant. Portland will get their chances against the Red Bulls, but finishing those opportunities is what matters.