The Fire will square off in the limelight of Sunday night soccer against a foe that they will be looking to get revenge against- the Portland Timbers. The Fire dropped both decisions against Portland in 2011. We opened Jeld-Wen field in April, and also lost the second match at Toyota Park later in the year. So the motivation is certainly there for the Men in Red to serve up a little payback to the Timbers. Although Jeld-Wen is always a tough place to play, the Fire come into the game in fine form, coming off a midweek draw vs. RSL and a win over Sporting KC. Portland, on the other hand, is struggling to get into a rhythm and they currently languish in last place in the Western Conference.
I collaborated with Geoff Gibson and Ryan Gates over at Stumptown Footy for our exchange. Our normal lineup of 3 Questions, Game Preview, and Gamethread will be in place again this weekend. This edition will feature a bit more than 3 questions however as both sites agreed to exchange 5 questions. So enjoy the extra content! Check out the first question below, and then head past the break for the rest.
1. Portland seems to be struggling offensively right now. The Timbers have not scored a goal of their own in over 420 minutes, and only have 9 goals in their first 10 games. On paper, the Timbers seem to have some offensive firepower in Kris Boyd, the recently acquired Mike Fucito, Valencia, Perlazza, and Nagbe, among others. Why has the offense sputtered so much? (via James Coston and Tweed Thornton)
Right now it's all stemming from the midfield. Both Darlington Nagbe and Kris Boyd, among others, are fantastic strikers. We've seen what Nagbe can do and I think Boyd's history speaks for itself. Unfortunately, in the interest of shoring up the defense, John Spencer has opted for two center midfielders who aren't really particularly adept as supplying the kind of service that's needed. Lovel Palmer, who many fans don't want to see in the starting eleven anymore, is used as a CDM and true enough since he's been there things have been going much smoother defensively. Additionally, Diego Chara is a true box-to-box rough and tumble type of player. He's one of those guys who isn't afraid to make the tough tackles. Unfortunately, he just doesn't have that creative spark that's really needed right now.
2. What is the current mood of the supporters? It seems that Timbers supporters are among the most passionate in the league, but how long will they put up with sub-par performances on the field? (via James Coston)
Team support is still at 110%. Same as usual. Those hardcore fans you see in the Timbers Army won't ever go away. They were there during some of the lowest points in the USL and they'll be there for a long time to come. For the more casual fans, they're still 100% behind the Timbers as well. Are fans frustrated? Yes. Do they want wins? Absolutely, who doesn't? But there's no immediate danger for the Timbers FO losing their luster.
In Portland, unlike in some other MLS cities, the team isn't relatively unknown. It's not this quirky thing that only a handful of people know about. If you live in Portland you know about the Timbers. You see signs up at bars and convenience stores. Regularly see people wearing jerseys and other related clothing. The team is very pervasive throughout the city and the culture of Portland, especially within the core downtown/inner areas. I don't have specific details, but I'd wager it's more prominent than the Trailblazers right now. Going to a Timbers game is an experience, and, right now, it's hard for you to call yourself a Portlander (born and raised, or not) until you've been to a Timbers game. It's that emblematic.
3. Three days after the Timbers play the Fire, they host Spanish side Valencia. The Fire hosted Manchester United last summer in what was arguably the biggest friendly in club history. What is the excitement level for this match? (via James Coston)
Mixed. Friendlies in Portland amongst the core fans are seen as distractions to the season and rightfully so. The Timbers need meaningful wins, not money-grabbing friendlies. The game will still be a sell out, though, no doubt about it. But there certainly wouldn't be any complaining if there wasn't any friendlies whatsoever. I'm just wondering why the FO didn't schedule some of these friendlies in the 3-ish week long break through June.
4. Going back to Kris Boyd, has he lived up to expectations thus far in Timbers fans eyes? Also, is Merritt Paulson a big fan of Rangers FC soccer club or something? Kris Boyd came from there, and if I recall correctly you had a couple of trialists from Rangers as well. Is this just coincidence, or is Portland building a strategic alliance with Rangers, much like the Fire has with Atletico Madrid? (via Rudy Gomez)
Kris Boyd is a great guy who is hugely talented, but he hasn't scored at the rate that many fans expected. That's not to say we're ready to toss him overboard just yet, but rather fans notice that something isn't right. Personally, I believe it's the distribution to him that's really causing problems. He's used to a league with players who are a bit more talented (not that I don't love my Timbers/MLS) and he needs time to adjust for his new surroundings. It's my guess that 2012 won't be his magical wonder season, but 2013 or maybe 2014 if he's still here. Look at David Beckham... his first 2 years were pretty much a wash. It's not easy going from there to here.
As for Rangers, there are a couple things happening right now I believe. First, our head coach John Spencer is a former Rangers man so there is that connection. How much that actually plays into the whole thing I'm not entirely sure. The second part of it is that Rangers are going through financial hardships right now which makes it easy for the Timbers FO to maybe lure some of those players over who might have been cut, or are otherwise disgruntled. I don't know if that's necessarily true, but it could very well be a reason.
5. Talk to me about John Spencer. With the start the Timbers have had, is there any fear that his job may be in jeopardy? How much of the blame for the rough start should be placed on his shoulders? Are Timbers fans beginning to call for his job? (via Ryan Sealock)
Oh I really can't comment on his job security. I know Merritt's not happy, obviously. He is a hugely passionate fan of his own team (as well he should) and as such demands wins and performance. When he's unhappy he lets it be known. That said, I'm not sure he's ready to throw Spencer under the bridge over a couple months performance. Bottom line, Spencer was a hero last season, even with losing out in the play off run. Nobody expected the Timbers would finish with a respectable 42 points last year.
The fans are a bit mixed on the issue. Some are vocal about firing Spencer. They're a bit more reactionary though than I'm assuming the FO is. Others, like myself, don't think it's time to be calling for anybody's head. After all the Timbers have been recording shut outs lately which certainly isn't bad. If the season ends in a really poor state, however, we could certainly see some changes up top, but I think Merritt will give Spencer the benefit of the 2012 season first.
Stumptown Footy Asks Hot Time In Old Town
1. The Chicago Fire are off to a fairly decent start to the season (fourth in the East). Was this expected? Are fans happy with how the team is playing so far or are there higher expectations for the team?
The answer to this is really yes and no. Going into the season, most fans expected a very high finish in the conference and a deep playoff run to boot. Although we aren't at the top of the standings, I think most of us are pretty content with where the team is at right now. We just came off a busy week against a couple of top teams, and took 4 points out of those games. That is definitely not too shabby. Earlier in the year I was a bit more tentative with the team's start, but that was with sporadic play as the Fire were dealt some early bye weeks. This prevented the team getting into an early groove. That now seems to be solved as the team is really gelling and picking things up. Confidence is rising right now in Fire land and with the East being wide open (Sporting KC's recent struggles demonstrate this), there isn't any reason the Fire can't win the Conference. At least that is what my expectations are right now.
2. Coming off a couple rough seasons, how important is it for the Fire to make a decent showing in this year's play offs? What would be the likely fall out for another missed play off?
Playoffs are a must to Fire fans. This is our motto every year, so the past 2 seasons that have ended short of that goal have been pretty devastating. I definitely think it is very important for the Fire to not only make the playoffs this year, but to also make a deep run. I feel that our team is good enough to go quite far, and playoff success is one of the many things Fire fans hold in high esteem. Should the unthinkable happen and the Fire would somehow miss the playoffs again, there would certainly be outrage but I don't foresee any grand, sweeping changes being made. Current head coach Frank Klopas is really putting his fingerprint on the club, and the fruits of his works are really starting to show. Before Frank, the Fire had a bit of a carousel going in terms of coaches, and it would seem that Frank is the guy that has come in and stabilized that. So I think he would be safe even if a nosedive would occur. He also seems to be held in pretty high regards by Fire owner Andrew Hauptman so that helps too.
The pieces are definitely there to really do some damage in the playoffs. And the Fire aren't done adding either. We have attacking midfielder Alex joining us this summer, and we could still add another player or two once the window opens. Andrew has made it clear that if a big name signing comes along that is right for the team, the money is there to pull the trigger. So this team could be even better than it is right now within the next couple of months.
3. The Timbers Army and Section 8 have quite the history. With Chicago having lost both times last year against the Timbers, do you, or anybody else, see a budding rivalry growing between the fans and clubs? With the East-West home-away series being played over two years now, does this factor in at all?
I definitely can see a rivalry going, especially with the East-West Home-Away format taken into account. That being said, I think it would be a pretty friendly rivalry given that both supporters groups are pretty close. I know that's how I feel, along with many other Fire fans. One of our authors on the website, James Coston, is pretty fond of the Timbers himself. I know that Chicago fans are definitely looking for a little payback though from last year. Playing in Portland is always tough, but at least we aren't opening up your stadium again like last year (and we all know the Fire are the go- to team for new/renovated stadium openings). I think what is developing between the two teams is really good for both cities. While it's fun to hate on a rival like Columbus or New England (in our case at least), it will also be pretty nice to have a club that we play with a friendly rivalry. I went to the Timbers/Fire game last year at Toyota Park, and had a very good time conversing with Timbers fans in the parking lot. You guys are certainly a classy group of fans, and I tip my hat to you.
4. Looking more tactically, what or who is the driving force behind the team and who or which player(s) should Timbers fans be keeping an eye on Sunday?
I always like to point out the obvious here, which would be Sebastian Grazzini and Dominic Oduro. Think of Grazzini as the maestro or conductor of the offense if you will. And Oduro is of course our main scoring threat and resident speed demon, along with Patrick Nyarko. Dom is quick like a Velociraptor (sorry, inside joke Jurassic Park reference). When both players are on, teams have a hard time stopping us. I would have answered Chris Rolfe, but it looks like he won't quite be fit in time for the match. His Fire re-debut is getting closer though. The other player to watch is Sean Johnson. He will likely be in goal Saturday again, but he has been very up and down since the Olympic qualifying fiasco. Fire fans are definitely in his corner as he strives to get his confidence back. One play he can look very shaky, and then make a brilliant save the next play. A confident, in form Johnson really does wonders for the rest of the team spirit. If Sean is on top of his game this weekend it will be a big lift for the club.
5. Predicted starting line up? (first and last names please)
For predicted lineup, I think it will be unchanged from last game. I see this Starting XI: Sean Johnson, Gonzalo Segares, Austin Berry, Jalil Anibaba (normally this would be Arne Friedrich but his is out 3-4 weeks with an injury), Dan Gargan, Pavel Pardo, Marco Pappa, Logan Pause, Sebastian Grazzini, Dominic Oduro, and Patrick Nyarko.