The Blue Testament asks Stumptown Footy...
1) How important was it to have Diego Chara back in the midfield against Los Angeles after missing the first week?
It's hard to understate Diego Chara's importance to the Timbers' midfield. He's one of the best ball-winners in the league, and is by far the Timbers' most aggressive midfield defensive presence. As SKC fans likely recall from the Timbers' last MLS trip to Sporting Park, pressing high and winning the ball in areas from which the Timbers can attack is central to what the Timbers normally do. And as he did in Kansas City a couple years back, Chara really is the guy who does that for Portland.
That said, last week wasn't Chara's most influential outing, likely for a couple reasons. First, he's coming off a preseason knock and didn't look quite in regular-season form. Second, and I'll talk more about this in a minute, the Timbers are absorbing a bit more pressure and going more direct than usual. Though he's still a plenty capable player, I don't think this sort of setup suits Chara quite as well as he's required to have a bit more positional discipline and can't maraud around the midfield with quite as much impunity.
2) After adding Nat Borchers in the offseason and Liam Ridgewell in the middle of 2014, how does the Timbers' back line look so far?
If you'd asked me this question before last week, I would've said 100% better. And although I wouldn't say the backline had a poor game as a unit last week, it made a couple mistakes we hadn't seen in the final preseason games and the opener against RSL.
Make no mistake, however; Nat Borchers is a significant and immediate upgrade over Pa Modou Kah. Although I'm not ready to go so far as to predict the Timbers will be an especially good defensive team in 2015, I am willing to say they won't be bad. And once the Timbers attack gets healthy and fully in form, even an adequate defense could make the Timbers pretty tough.
3) The Timbers are still fighting some injuries with Diego Valeri and Will Johnson still out, how have the Timbers adjusted so far and will that strategy continue against Sporting KC?
This won't look much like the Timbers team you're used to seeing the last couple years. Thus far in this young season the Timbers have been very, very direct. The reality is that without Valeri and Johnson (two of the guys who are most crucial to the Timbers' ability to build from the back and through the middle), Portland really doesn't have the capacity to successfully play that way. But what quick combinations and Valeri's creativity were to the More traditional Timbers attack, Darlington Nagbe running at players and Fanendo Adi's holdup play is to this reinvented style.
On Saturday look for the Timbers to keep a good amount of width with their wingers to open up spaces for Nagbe to pick up the ball in the channels. And if the Timbers can turn SKC over with either Nagamura or Espinoza caught a little bit upfield, they'll waste no time trying to get into the soft spot in front of the backline before SKC can recover.
Stumptown Footy asks The Blue Testament...
1. It sounds like Graham Zusi is still carrying a foot injury he suffered some time ago. How limited by the injury do you think he's been?
There was certainly a difference between pre-World Cup Zusi and post-World Cup Zusi in the 2014 season. This year, it has seemed like he's been a little slower but I think we all just chalked it up to early-season rust, especially since he had an abridged pre-season. Now that it's come out he is still dealing with the injury, it's easy to go back and see that he's been a step slower in the first couple of games this season. To me, at least, it hasn't seemed like the injury has been obvious but he hasn't been at peak form so far.
The question now is how does this affect Sporting KC going forward. They don't have the best depth on the wing, but if resting Zusi now helps him get healthy for the home stretch then I'm all for it. There's also a question of whether resting him is necessary or not which, given his two starts in two games, doesn't seem to be as of yet.
2. A couple tough results for the Wiz so far, but the performances have been a bit better than the results suggest. Is there concern in Kansas City about the results or do folks think the results will catch up to the quality of the play?
The biggest word thrown around Sporting KC circles this season has been "patience." This is a team that has six new starters, a not-in-form Zusi, a rusty Ike Opara and a new system from the past few years. It's going to take some time for the players to gel and for them to get into full form. I believe that this team will get progressively better as the season goes on, given the amount of talent on this team. Benny Feilhaber and Roger Espinoza partnering in the midfield is a fun tandem to watch, Dom Dwyer receiving service from Krisztian Nemeth and Graham Zusi will get better as the three sync up more and the defense will continue to gel and get better with the promotion of Ike Opara to the starting lineup and the addition of Marcel de Jong to the left side.
If the problems are still persisting in July, then we'll have a problem, but I think because it's early in the season the team will take those performances and turn them into results.
3. Dom Dwyer's finishing troubles: Early-season yips or regression to the mean after an outlier 2014?
I believe it's just early season yips. 2014 was a fantastic year for Dwyer and he was the focal point of the attack, therefore he has a lot of expectations coming into 2015. I would say it's concerning given his first two games but then again, it's only been two games. Looking back to 2013, Dwyer went down to Orlando City and broke USL scoring records before coming up to Sporting Kansas City and scoring a few goals for the senior squad. He's never had a problem scoring, so that helps alleviate fears of an outlier season in 2014. Dwyer is one of those players who, I believe at least, will get his mojo back once he breaks that barrier and gets the first goal of the season. As a main striker, you need confidence and a little bit of arrogance to know you can put the ball in the net. As long as Dwyer isn't second guessing himself, he should be fine.