Can the United States national team's all-time leading scorer finally end his season-long slump and find MLS goal no. 137? Mike McCall offers his thoughts on the best game this weekend.
May 09, 2014
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The Portland Timbers vs. L.A. Galaxy is one of those matchups that’s almost guaranteed to qualify as Must See MLS. You have stars on both sides, key American players, attractive playing styles, one of the league’s best venues at Portland’s Providence Park, and the always heated battle for sole ownership of sixth place in the Western Conference.
So the season hasn’t gotten off to the kind of start either team had envisioned. In fact, add up their combined 15 games played so far, and they’ve got just three wins between them. The New England Revolution have four on their own.
But that doesn’t diminish the first meeting of the season between these two clubs. In fact, it only makes it more interesting. Portland (1-5-3) and L.A. (2-2-2) are looking to find the kind of form that’s expected of them, and it should be quite the atmosphere when they face off at 2:30 p.m. Sunday on NBCSN.
Portland and L.A. aren’t the worst teams by any stretch, but they’re both punching below their weight. The Galaxy have played the fewest games in the league by far, and with only two home matches, there hasn’t been too much of a chance to build momentum. The biggest surprise is their lack of goals, with just seven.
That was evident in a 1-0 loss to Colorado last week, when the Galaxy had 58 percent of possession but couldn’t find a goal. Robbie Keane’s missed penalty in the 62nd minute was the low point.
With the kind of expectations this club has, outings like that don’t go over well. Head coach Bruce Arena felt his side "just blew this game.” Keane felt similarly, calling it “probably one of our worst performances certainly for a long time.”
On the other side, the Timbers’ attack has been so-so with 12 goals in nine games. Compare that to the team that finished third in the league in scoring when they won the Western Conference last year, and then tack on the fact that their archrival Seattle is lighting up the scoreboard, and you can imagine there’s a bit of frustration in Stumptown.
A 4-4 home draw against those Sounders in early April was the highlight of the season until last week, when the Timbers finally got their first win by topping D.C. United 3-2 in stoppage time thanks to a gutsy decision by Caleb Porter to sub in Argentine striker Maximiliano Urruti and go with a three-man back line in the closing minutes.
But even that victory raised further questions about the defense, which squandered the lead twice and has now let in 15 goals.
Something’s got to give here. Will the struggling Portland defense prove the antidote for the visitors’ attacking woes? Or will the Galaxy buckle and allow the Timbers to take control in front of their noisy home crowd?
STUCK ON 134
There’s also a chance to see history on Sunday. Then again, that has been the case with every L.A. match this season.
The all-time MLS scoring record is probably one of the most low-key milestones in American pro sports, but it does seem important that someone like Landon Donovan hold the top spot. He’s currently tied with Jeff Cunningham for first at 134—which is exactly where he was coming into this year. Six starts and 18 shots haven’t been enough for Donovan to get over the hump, and while he isn’t the type to spend much time worrying about a record, it does bring the kind of questions he’d rather avoid.
“Is it important? Yeah, it is,” Donovan told MLSSoccer.com. “It means something to me. But I'll be glad when it's over, to be honest, so I can just get back to focusing.”
Considering that Donovan said that in March, it has got to be wearing on him by now.
The L.A. offense was always going to run through Keane, who has four of the team’s seven goals, and keep an eye on midfielder Stefan Ishizaki, who’s second on the team with two goals.
But the Galaxy need their American star to start hitting the net. And U.S. fans need Donovan in top form as Brazil edges closer.
After the Timbers put their first notch in the win column last week, Porter sounded convinced that it was a turning point.
“It’s three points, but sometimes it feels like more, and I think this is one that feels like more,” he said
. “I think they’ll play freer, more confident. I think we’ll continue to get better and better. We’ve been playing well, but I think sometimes when you feel that weight of that pressure because you’re not getting the results, you get frustrated. This will definitely unlock us.”
The pressure has been stronger on the back line, which has yet to pitch a shutout, but that can quickly extend to the other end of the field if the attacking players feel they have to score two or three goals to win.
On paper, the pieces are there. Gaston Fernandez (four goals) poses a threat up top, Diego Valeri (two assists) is one of the league’s best playmakers when in top form, and the likes of Darlington Nagbe, Diego Chara, Steve Zakuani, and Will Johnson round out what should be a very threatening attack.
On the other side, L.A. may be without a crucial piece of their back line, as U.S. center back Omar Gonzalez left the Colorado loss at halftime with a knee injury, although Arena sounded confident he wouldn’t miss much time.
“I feel strongly about the fact this is a short-term issue and he'll be fine,” Arena said. “There's nothing long-term with his injury, I can promise you that.”
And we promise you—with the big names, the setting, U.S. implications and the sense of urgency for both clubs, you won’t want to miss this one.
Mike McCall has equaled Landon Donovan’s season goal tally in just three appearances for American Soccer Now. Tell him what you think in the comments below, and follow him on Twitter.