Excerpts and Stats from my Locker Room Speech to the Portland Timbers

Posted on September 21, 2011 7:55 am

I don’t generally believe in “must-win” games. More precisely, I believe that word…wait, phrase? Hyphenated word? Whatever it is, it gets thrown around so readily in fan/jock circles that it’s lost its meaning. Think pejoratives in contemporary politics and you should get the idea…

Even so, I don’t often preview games and that says something. No, tomorrow night’s Portland Timbers home game isn’t “must-win,” so much as it’s an instance when winning means we won’t have to make up for it later. And in less favorable conditions. The point is, good teams find ways to win – home, road, in the bar and/or hotel after game – regardless of location, they find that little extra sumpin’ sumpin’ that brings home the bacon…the good kind, the stuff that doesn’t release water when you cook it.

An American president once said, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” That’s precisely the attitude I want Portland to adopt for tomorrow night: I want them loose as comfortable pajama trousers; I want them to take the field with the attitude that, no matter what Apollo Creed says, there is a tomorrow.

I’ve been looking at rosters and pre-game previews, chock full of good things like word on suspension and injury reports. This is not my normal routine. But it’s relaxing in a way. It’s relaxing, in fact, the same way it feels to finally sit down to take a test: there’s just this thing to do, so remember what you learned and now it’s time to get on with it and what will be will be.

OK, that’s my locker-room speech…on to the details. And no shirking…

It feels right to start with the San Jose Earthquakes, the players they’re likely to field, the fact they knocked the Timbers out of the U.S. Open Cup and at Jeld-Wen Field to boot (and, god, was that game was awful). For starters, with a couple players since decamped to points elsewhere in MLS, it’s clear they won’t start the same roster from that Open Cup victory. Hell, they probably won’t even field the same team from the August 6th draw at Buck Shaw. I suppose I’d expect to see Bobby Convey out there again, but he’s hardly putting in an “indispensable” kind of season. The ‘Quakes forward corps looks at least two warm bodies south of ideal, which is probably why we keep seeing Khari Stephenson out of position, as we did last weekend. All in all, it’s less a “who’s who” than a “who’s that” and that speaks favorably of Portland’s chances.

On the other hand, it seems wise to check in on Chris Wondolowski’s recent strike-rate – i.e., he has 10 goals this year, but when did they come? By most appearances and opinions, this was a man stumbling through a drought, an off-year after the salad days of 2010, but 10 goals is 10…and, y’know, it’s kind of worthwhile walking back through that because, unless my research is very much mistaken, Wondo’s scoring touch comes and it goes. After a late-July brace, Wondo has scored in exactly two matches: on the 10th against Chicago and on August 27th against Toronto. Prior to that July brace, however, one has to walk all the way back to May, when the ‘Quakes played Chicago in a morgue.

If you’re detecting a pattern in Wondo’s scoring, you’re on to something; Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago…not really lighting it up against the Big Boys.

That’s not all San Jose has, of course: I’ve been impressed, for instance, by 2nd-year man Steven Beitashour, who may or may not lead the team in assists (he does!); Simon Dawkins can be a royal pain-in-the-ass on the right day, as can Ramiro Corrales…in spite of middle age tapping him impatiently on the shoulder; and, even out of position, it’s not at all wise to turn one’s back on Stephenson. All the same, the stars seem decently aligned: here you have Portland, riding a three-game shutout streak, going against the second weakest offensive team in MLS.

That’s my way of saying I feel good on the defensive side, if only on the strength, or lack thereof, from the opposition. The question on the tip of anyone’s tongue should be obvious: can Portland get the vital goal(s)? That Jack Jewsbury’s career season tops both the goals and assists category is hardly ideal. That Jewsbury makes for one side of bookends for forwards Kenny Cooper and Jorge Perlaza with central defender Eric Brunner on the other end…well, that is cause for concern.

Inspiring as last Friday night was (shit! Katy Perry, stuck in my head….again!), the goals weren’t all that pretty. There’s also the troubling matter of a drop-off in form for Sal Zizzo, certainly, and Kalif Alhassan as well….though I have not forgot the inspiring sights of the road draw against Philadelphia.

All this goes back to the top, to that locker-room speech about playing loose and as if you’ve got nothing to lose. Portland can’t control what San Jose does, and that’s whether they pack it in or go for broke. What they can do is know that San Jose attacks with the menace of a nurse shark and behave accordingly.

To put that in sentence, it would sound like this: Go out there, trust your defense, and play like scoring a goal is the only thing that matters. And no matter what happens today, there is a tomorrow. Getting back to the question I raised earlier about what it means to be a good team, that’s sort of the issue. Even if Portland wins tomorrow, it doesn’t tell us more than what we already know – e.g. that they’re a good team at home. We won’t know if they’re just a full-stop good team till they prove it somewhere else.

That’s when I’ll get excited about not just our chances of getting into the post-season, but of doing something when we get there.

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