May 19th, 2012 9:14 am | by Matthew Korfhage News | Posted In: Sports

Timbers Preview: The Portland Dry Spell Continues as the Chicago Fire Come to Town

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The Portland Timbers have spent 427 minutes since they’ve last found the back of the other team’s net—notwithstanding an own goal by Sporting Kansas City on April 21. In that time, the defense has compensated considerably; three of the past four games have been shutouts, and the Timbers defense has currently gone 206 minutes without allowing a goal.

But to put it bluntly, if you don’t score, you can’t win games. And Portland (2-5-3, 9 points) desperately needs a win against the Chicago Fire on May 20 at JELD-WEN Field in order to turn around the season. In the past four games, coach John Spencer has been utilizing an essentially defensive configuration to stop Portland’s previously leaky backfield, but this has come at a cost. Diego Chara and Lovel Palmer are both essentially defensive center midfielders, which can make forward link-ups difficult except on mid-pitch steals or breaks up the wings. The centerfield marshaling of plays that makes for good opportunities has been absent for Portland in recent games.

Kevin Alexander at Slide Rule Pass has an excellent graphic analysis of Portland’s defensive stance over the past two games against the Columbus Crew and Houston Dynamo, showing a broadening chasm between the midfield and the increasingly isolated strikers.

But against the Chicago Fire’s offense this year, Coach Spencer’s shoes may feel very tight indeed. Portland bested Chicago in both games last year; indeed, Chicago accounted for one of Portland’s only two road victories. But Chicago (4-2-3, 15 pts.) is playing as a stronger team this year than last year. At home last week, the Fire were able to hold Western Conference leader Real Salt Lake to a tie on May 9. On May 12, they knocked Sporting Kansas City off the top of the Eastern Conference with a 2-1 victory.

Twinned Ghanaian forwards Patrick Nyarko (one goal this season) and especially Dominic Oduro (four goals) are two of the speediest forwards in the league, which is an asset that seems almost designed to spike a consistent weakness in the Portland backfield: its lack of speed on the right wing. Look for a highly physical game in the backfield against the tall, slender forwards—but look also for the Portland backfield to get badly burned by the whippet-quick Oduro at least a couple times during the game.

With this threat, along with strong midfield support from Sebastian Grazzini (1 goal, 3 assists), it’s not clear that Spencer will elect to dilute his defensive strategy in favor of a stronger offensive line-up, especially with center back Futty Danso’s suspension and the touch-and-go groin injury status of Jack Jewsbury.

What needs to happen no matter what, however, is that the team does a better job linking upfield to create more chances for strikers Kris Boyd and Darlington Nagbe, as well as the attacking midfield wingers. The probable return of Kalif Alhassan after a long injury may provide some much-needed spark to Portland’s offense; he has the ability to be one of the most creative and dynamic offensive-minded players on the team.

Chicago is far from unbeatable, even given their solid results last week. Most of Chicago’s victories have come against some of the weaker teams in the league, and their play places them solidly in the middle of the pack. A Portland team that is able to move the ball forward for solid chances on goal, without sacrificing the impressive defensive strides of the past four games, should have a solid chance to come up with the three points.

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