Timbers to face Chicago Fire in MLS home opener

The Timbers return home this week after starting off their MLS regular season campaign with three consecutive road games.

The Timbers return home this week after starting off their MLS regular season campaign with three consecutive road games. The Timbers have made it back to Portland with a 0-2-1 record to start off the regular season, but have made large strides in team chemistry. Confidence has grown and with a sold-out crowd awaiting their arrival in the newly named Jeld-Wen Field, there is sure to be plenty of motivation to go around come April 14.

Portland had its first taste of victory after defeating Chivas USA on March 29 in a U.S. Open Cup match, although the game did not count toward the team’s overall MLS record. The win gave them a sense of confidence and the drive to play on the road once again, as Portland forced a 1-1 draw against a strong New England Revolution side at Gillette stadium only four days later. With nearly two weeks between games, there’s been plenty of time for Portland to prepare a winning strategy and put its first check in the win column. 

The home opener will not be a walk in the park, as the Timbers are pitted against the Chicago Fire (1-1-1, 4 pts). The Fire are coming off a 2-1 loss against the Seattle Sounders last Saturday, but had an impressive 2-1 victory in U.S. Open Cup play against the 2010 MLS champion Colorado Rapids only two weeks ago. The Rapids managed to dismantle Portland in a 3-1 victory to spoil the Timbers first regular season game as an MLS franchise.

As the Timbers continue to build cohesion and momentum through the first four games of the season, leaders have begun to emerge out on the field. Midfielder Jack Jewsbury has stepped up and proudly donned the captain’s armband. Jewsbury scored one of the Timbers’ two goals in league play so far, but his value goes far beyond his raw scoring potential, as his 10 seasons of MLS experience help him guide a team full of young players. Timbers head coach John Spencer described Jewsbury as being “the voice that we need in the middle of the field,” according to The Oregonian.

Also, 20-year-old Darlington Nagbe, a big name out of the University of Akron, has Timbers fans holding their breath for a breakout season. Nagbe was selected second in the 2011 MLS Superdraft by the Timbers, but underwent sports hernia surgery in spring camp and has recently been easing his way back into the lineup.

Injuries have been a setback for Portland this season, but as new injuries pile up, older injuries are beginning to heal. Of the many names shifting to and from the injury list, expect to see forward Eddie Johnson, midfielders Sal Zizzo and Nagbe break their way into the rotation soon. Goalkeepers Troy Perkins and Adin Brown are also expected to be back on the field within the next few weeks, with Perkins already participating in light exercises.

The injury bug has been vicious, but most players are on the mend, working on fitness and getting back into game-shape. Last Saturday, the Timbers played in an exhibition match against Oregon State’s soccer squad, defeating the Beavers 1-0 with a lone goal coming Nagbe. The exhibition match gave reserves who haven’t seen much time so far and players getting back from injury, a chance to play a full 90 minutes.

The injuries should not be an excuse, according to head coach John Spencer, but if the Timbers expect to shut down a potent Chicago offense and come away with a win this Thursday, it will help to have returning players fully healthy and making an impact out on the field.

The Chicago Fire will be seeking their first win on the road for this season, and have a few players that will be a challenge for the Timbers to keep in check. Forward Diego Cháves has been huge for the Fire, scoring three goals in three games this season. The Fire have notched five total goals this season, with midfielder Marco Pappa and forward Gaston Puerari scoring one goal each. 

With lineup changes and injuries contributing to the sluggish start to the season, it’s difficult not to be a bit skeptical when it comes to the Timber’s success this season. Still, Spencer feels his team is getting better every day, and in the process has found players capable of stepping up.

Rookie goalkeeper Jake Gleeson, a player who gained experience with the Timbers U23 squad last year, is a prime example. Gleeson was thrown into the lineup in Toronto after keepers Adin Brown and Troy Perkins went down with injuries. Since entering the lineup, Gleeson has emerged as a true playmaker, allowing only two goals in the last three matches.

For the Timbers to defend their home field and get their first victory as an MLS soccer team, they will need to feed off of the crowd’s energy and show improvement in team chemistry. With Nagbe returning and players like Jewsburyhelping to lead the team and create scoring opportunities, Portland should be ready to make its fans proud come Thursday night.

Kick-off for the home opener against Chicago is scheduled for 8 p.m. at Jeld-Wen Field. The match will also be televised live on ESPN.  The Timbers will turn around quickly and host FC Dallas three days later at Jeld-Wen at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 17.  ?