If one was just looking at the standings right now, this would look like a very disappointing start for the Portland Timbers, sitting on just two points, even though two of the first three games were at home. Yet the prevailing mood around these parts is one of optimism, springing from the positives the Timbers have shown so far--a team that looks to be developing a real identity, a coach who makes smart tactical changes, late goals for the Timbers instead of against them. It's all good stuff.
Still, a win would be nice, wouldn't it?
This weekend against the Colorado Rapids the Timbers will have to fight for their first win in a stadium that has been unkind to them in the past. Of course most stadiums outside of Jeld-Wen Field and "our house in the middle of B.C." do not hold happy memories for the Timbers, but a 3-1 loss in their first ever MLS game and two 3-0 losses in 2012 make Dick's Sporting Goods Park a particularly unhappy place. Add to that the fact that Colorado is also searching for their first win and are playing at home for only the second time, having lost their home opener. The Timbers face a big challenge trying to get three points in this game, but it would be such a sweet result.
Let's look at what the Timbers are going to have to do if they want to get their first win, and a road win no less, this Saturday.
Be ready right from the opening whistle
The Timbers have had a little trouble turning things on right away. Early in the game, passes have been sloppy. The defense has looked a bit unfocused, especially in dead ball situations. The Timbers have given up early chances, and ultimately the first goal, in all three games. Though the Timbers have done well to come back and get the draw in two out of three games, it is immensely difficult to claw your way back from a deficit and get the win (unless you happen to be playing the 2011-12 Timbers). If the Timbers can get into a rhythm quickly, they should be able to prevent the Rapids from getting the early chances that other teams have been able to capitalize on.
Keep controlling possession
It's a soccer cliché but it's also true: you can't score if you don't have the ball. One of the great things we have seen from the Timbers so far is that they have had the majority of the possession in every game, which surely helped them make those comebacks against New York and Seattle and it will help the team hold on to a lead (when they finally get the experience of playing with one) because it helps create scoring opportunities for the Timbers while minimizing chances for their opponent. The Timbers need to keep that up and it will start to pay off.
Be stronger than the altitude
Last season in both games in Colorado, the Timbers labored at the high elevation. The Rapids will certainly be more used to playing at altitude and in that respect they will have an advantage. That much is unavoidable. However, visiting teams in Colorado do not always struggle so much. Part of the Timbers' problem was that they lacked the mental toughness to overcome the challenge. Similarly, through two MLS season the Timbers have wilted playing in heat and humidity. This year's Timbers seem a little bit tougher, and if they can follow steps one and two above, that will go a long way toward lessening the physical toll elevation can take. The Timbers will help themselves if they don't have to chase the game or the ball.
In addition to altitude's toll on the body, the Timbers will have to be mindful of the effects it can have on the ball. Last year in Colorado the Timbers appeared unprepared for how their crosses and free kicks played in the thin air. Most frustratingly, they never did seem to adjust their game to account for that, they just kept over-hitting crosses. As much as possible, the boys will need to get a feel for how the ball moves differently in the air and adjust accordingly.
Be mindful of Deshorn Brown
The tricky forward is probably Colorado's biggest threat on offense. With only two goals for the team as a whole, that is not saying a lot, but Brown scored one goal and assisted the other. He also leads the team in shots, with more than double the next highest player. Brown often traipses around the opposing back line, waiting to peel away from the defense and run on to a through-ball from a teammate or capitalize on a bad pass or sloppy touch from a defender. He plays strong too; his goal game after he muscled Real Salt Lake's 6'4" center back Chris Schuler off the ball. The Timbers defense needs to stay focused, because Brown will be watching for them to make a mistake.
Attack through the middle
One of the real strengths of the Timbers' attack going forward is probably going to be their passing at the top of the box. As they move closer to goal, their passes get shorter and quicker. Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe are especially good at finding the narrowest of passing lanes and slotting the ball through. The defense of Montreal and Seattle managed to frustrate the Timbers into attempting to cross the ball in from the wings. Against Colorado though, they should be able to create chances by keeping it on the ground and relying on quick, skillful passing. Real Salt Lake managed to turn the Colorado defense inside out with that style of play. Ultimately, that was how they got their equalizer in that Rivalry Week match-up.
There's no doubt it, this is going to be a tough one, but the Colorado Rapids are struggling and coming off a loss, while the Timbers look to be getting their act together. They have the talent to pull off a win this weekend.