[Hi all. This year we've once again contrived to have Henry Gondorff, a good friend and an inveterate Fire supporter, to offer his thoughts on the upcoming match. And so, without further ado...]
Greetings from chilly Chiberia. Gondorff here again to give the view from Section 8 of this year's one and only league meeting between your Portland Timbers and our Chicago Fire. We emerge from the coldest, snowiest winter on record to find that the wind chills have scoured away most of the memory of last season, along with nearly all the coaching staff and a substantial amount of the on-field talent. After managing only five points from their first ten matches in 2013, the Fire hit the transfer market, landing eventual MVP Mike Magee and Brobdingnagian Bakary Soumare. In the end Magee's prodigious goal-scoring and creativity could not overcome the defensive frailties which saw the Fire give up fifty-two goals, despite the addition of the Malian giant. Fan favorite Frank Klopas was probably gone even if the Fire had made the playoffs, but failure to do so made the change a certainty.
So, enter Frank Yallop, the man you hire when you want to build a competitive club without spending a lot of money. As such he's not the favoritest of choices among fans of whatever team he turns up to manage, but he ingratiated himself by retaining goalkeepers coach Aron Hyde and bringing in Fire legend C. J. Brown to coach the defenders. Yallop also brought Brian Bliss with him to handle personnel and Clint Mathis to coach the attackers. And so they set out to remake the team. Youth is out, except for a couple of very new faces about which a bit more later. In are a lot of faces that should be familiar to Timbers supporters.
That defense that gave up the most goals in MLS last season got a lot older and a lot deeper. Austin Berry and his 2012 Rookie of the Year trophy are off to Philly, a cap casualty. And clearly Yallop didn't see Jalil Anibaba getting any better because he traded Anibaba for Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni, the former to partner Soumare in the center and the latter for depth, and he got Lovell Palmer to play in Anibaba's slot. The quartet of Palmer, Hurtado, Soumare, and Segares promises to be the regular unit, with Sean Johnson behind and Jeff Larentowicz in front shouting orders. On the evidence of the Fire's woeful opening match at Chivas, attacking this new back line anywhere with pace is liable to bring results. When it's working well Soumare will be let to step up into tackles (which he's going to do anyway) and Hurtado will cover behind, but there are still a few bugs in the system. Assuming the centerbacks get their act together, attackers can still succeed on the flanks. Segares will want to get forward to lend width to the attack, and with the Fire playing a high line 4-1-4-1 he could easily be caught out by a pacy winger. Likewise Palmer was completely exposed on a number of occasions on Sunday by a burst of speed to the end line.
The Fire attack figures to feature Dily Duka and Paddy Nyarko on the wings, Magee and Alex in the middle, and Juan Luis Anangonó the lone striker. However, Magee is still nursing his hamstring and probably won't see more than twenty minutes of this weekend's match, if he appears at all. Yallop's desire to press high and stay narrow relies on the energy, inspiration, and improvisation of his midfielders, who are expected to fill the open channel, wherever it may be and to be ambitious in their play. Unfortunately, when the inspiration and the energy are lacking, as they were in Los Angeles last Sunday, it looks a shambles. Indeed, it was difficult to say on Sunday which of the teams was the more goat-like in its meanderings about the pitch.
Given the kind of depth the Fire have at midfield, and Yallop's willingness to put anyone out on the pitch who will produce, no one who started on opening day should get too comfortable, especially after a 3-2 loss the Fire were never really in. The attack showed some life after seventy minutes with the introduction of another face familiar to any Timbers supporter, Quincy Amerikwa, and new boy and USA prospect Benji Joya. The latter scored with literally his first touch, after a bit of industry from Alex (one of the few men a Fire shirt with a little job security). The former brought us level with a beautiful twenty-yard bender, made all the sweeter by the fact that he scored it while wearing the accessory of the season, Thomas McNamara. With Magee's deputy Rolfe carrying a foot bruise, Joya or Amerikwa may get the start.
It is fair to say that if Juan Luis Anangonó does not start to live up to the hype soon, he is going to be watching Amerikwa play a lot of soccer. Likewise, Chris Rolfe, always a hot-and-cold sort of player had better round into form a lot more quickly than he did last term because when Magee is healthy he will start, and after that the midfield gets crowded, with Alex, Rolfe, Joya, and Notre Dame star Harry Shipp all vying for time. Even on the wings there should be constant worry over job security. Nyarko showed his usual pace and creativity on Sunday before the Fire inexplicably stopped giving him the ball, but if the long-rumored loan of Grant Ward comes through there will be pressure to give the young Spurs winger minutes, and they will come at the expense of Nyarko or Duka.
The Chicago coaching staff has a clear plan: play up-tempo possession football in the opponent's end, stay narrow and compact, and win the ball back immediately whenever it is lost. But in the season's first outing none of the contents of that plan were on display on the pitch. Certainly some of that had to do with the disruptive high-energy play of the Chivas defense. The Fire were out-hustled to balls all afternoon, so possession never materialized. And for all the talk of the new, improved, super-experienced back line, giving up three goals to a team that doesn't feature much besides Mauro Rosales in attack was not the way to exorcise memories of last year.
The keys for the Timbers will be to break the Chicago press, if it materializes, and get the ball wide, much as Portland did last season against Seattle. Then get the Chicago defense running at its own goal. With Segares tracking back from his offensive forays and the none-too-speedy trio of Larentowicz, Soumare, and Hurtado legging it back down field good things are bound to happen for Portland, especially when you consider how inadequate the Fire looked defending set pieces, Chivas's winner being a prime example.
The question now is can Yallop get his men to stay bought in to the system when things go as terribly wrong as they did against Chivas. Portland are a superior side to the Goats in a many obvious respects, so it will take discipline, fortitude, and not a little luck for the Fire to stay competitive with the Timbers.
But, hey, that's why we play'em on the pitch and not on the clipboard. Cheers from the City of Big Shoulders (and Sharp Elbows) to the Rose City.