A new center midfielder and a US Open Cup victory on Tuesday night has brought some optimism back into the Fire's 2011 season but the team faces a must win situation against a struggling expansion side at home. After defeating Chicago in their home opener the Timbers have found some success at home but their road form has been abysmal. John Spencer certainly can't be happy about a 0-5-2 record with 15 goals allowed and only 3 scored away from home.
The Fire faced Jake Gleeson in goal on April 14 but the position has since been claimed by former DC United 'keeper Troy Perkins. Defensively they've been very shaky giving up a whopping 31 goals in 17 MLS regular season matches. Steve Purdy, Eric Brunner, Futty Danso, and Rodney Wallace have been together fairly consistently over the last month but with Brunner suspended either David Horst or Kevin Goldthwaite will move into his central spot.
Spencer has gone through several juggling acts with formation and positional switches in an attempt to find a winning combination that probably doesn't exist. Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara are fixtures in midfield and the remaining spots have been filled by Kalif Alhassan, Darlington Nagbe, James Marcellin, and Sal Zizzo. Alhassan and Nagbe have had a bit of freedom to get forward since it seems that Spencer isn't settled on a second striker paired with Jorge Perlaza.
Kenny Cooper appears to have fallen out of favor although he does have a history of scoring against the Fire (albeit in a different shirt). Whether or not Spencer uses the 4-5-1 formation he deployed in their last match or reverts to a 4-4-2 with Cooper and Perlaza up top remains to be seen.
From the Fire's end defensively the team was adequate last weekend in Los Angeles with the exception of covering two dead ball situations. Cory Gibbs missed Tuesday's USOC match with a bout of food poisoning but should be ready to go for this match after retirning to full training on Thursday. Josip Mikulic was shown a red card from the bench in LA so he won't be available. In goal, Sean Johnson will also look to redeem himself for the awful performance in Portland that resulted in Jon Conway temporarily assuming the starting goalkeeper spot.
After arriving from Argentina this morning it's not likely that we'll get a peek at new acquisition Sebastian Grazzini in midfield so I would expect that Danield Paladini and Logan Pause are the central pairing again with Marco Pappa and Patrick Nyarko on the outside. Nyarko was a handful for Los Angeles defenders last weekend and seems to be rounding into the form we witnessed during the first half of 2010 when the Ghanian winger was arguably the team's best player.
With Diego Chaves serving a one game suspension for what the MLS disciplinary committee apparently deemed was a suspect tackle against Landon Donovan it's safe to assume that Dominic Oduro and Cristian Nazirit will be the front runners. Orr Barouch will likely continue in his role as a super-sub at striker.
PORTLAND TIMBERS -- OUT: FW Spencer Thompson (R knee); PROBABLE: DF Mamadou Danso (L shoulder); FW Bright Dike (R Achilles rupture); DF Jeremy Hall (groin soreness); DF David Horst (L hip flexor); MF Adam Moffat (R ankle sprain); GK Troy Perkins (R hip soreness); DF Rodney Wallace (L knee)
CHICAGO FIRE -- OUT: DF Steven Kinney (R Achilles repair); MF Marko Maric (L deltoid sprain); DOUBTFUL: FW Gabriel Ferrari (R ankle sprain)
The Fire are facing an abosulte must win at home. Picking up less than three points against this team at this point in the season given their current struggles and road form would be inexcusable. They shouldn't need Grazzini for this one.
Fire 2 Timbers 0
The Rest of the League
Real Salt Lake 1 Vancouver 1 - RSL was knocked out of the USOC by Dallas so it's time to re-focus on the season
Colorado 1 Seattle 2 - Sounders seem to be on a roll and the Rapids are up and down
San Jose 0 Columbus 1 - Crew keeps grinding out results at home
Sporting KC 0 Houston 1 - A battle for the fourth spot in the East with the two sides 1 point apart. Could easily be a draw and KC has to really be smarting after losing to Richmond in the USOC on Tuesday night.
DC 0 FC Dallas 1 - The Hoops seem to be going on the kind of run they had in mid season last year.
New York 2 Chivas 2 - Rumor has it that Hans Backe will actually show up for this one.
Philadelphia 1 New England 1 - I'm just not sold on the Union.
Grazzini Arrives in Chicago
Sebastian Grazzini arrived in town this morning and came directly from the airport to Toyota Park to meet his new teammates and coaches. After a long flight with little sleep Grazzini feels he won't be ready for the Portland match but is anxious to contribute. “No, I don’t think I will play tomorrow because I did not sleep on the flight and I’m physically tired. I am dying to get out there, but I prefer to do things right and getting out there tomorrow night would be too soon,” said Grazzini.
The Fire's newest midfielder last played on June 11 in Argentina so getting back into football shape quickly shouldn't be an issue. “After the end of my season, I have kept in shape and done some workouts because I knew I was going to be coming out here. I haven’t worked with the ball much since the season ended, but I hope within a couple of training sessions I’ll fit right in.”
While conditioning doesn't seem to be a concern Grazzini did express a bit of caution with regard to coming into a team half through the season, “Obviously, I would have liked to have started on the same time and physical condition as my teammates. They’re all in mid-season form and I am coming off a short tournament, but I’ve felt I’ve put in a lot of hard work in the last four weeks, even though I have been off. Overall, it is very difficult to join a team during the middle of the year. I am going to do the best I can to get out there, so it will be a question in time. I want to fit in with the guys the best I can and give them all my best qualities.”
He's also taken some time to learn a few things about MLS.
“My representative told me there was interest from teams in MLS, specifically one team who was very interested in my services. I started to become familiar with the leagues in the States, so I was also interested to come up here and play since the league was growing and getting a lot better. Plus, there have already been four or five players that have already come to the States to play. I knew that Chicago was one of the clubs in the league, so it became an interest to me. I had some offers out in Argentina, but I’ve always been interested in moving to a different country."
Frank Klopas expects to get Grazzini in the mix for a reserve match in Kansas City on Tuesday and against Manchester United next weekend. The next league match will be August 3 at home against Philadelphia.