Fire prepare to crash Portland's party

Fire prepare to crash Portland's party
April 14, 2011, 4:16 pm
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Thursday, April 14, 2011Posted: 11:20 a.m.
By Dieter Kurtenbach
CSNChicago.com

Not much is expected from the expansion Portland Timbers this season. After all, its a squad assembled from the rest of the leagues castoffs. But for the Chicago Fire, Thursdays matchup with the Timbers is one of the biggest games on its schedule.

These are the games that we play for, as a professional, Fire defender Cory Gibbs said in a telephone interview Wednesday. Ive tried to translate this to the team. Ive been there many times, fortunately, in my career. These are games that we strive to play.

How can that be? Portland has not won a game all season, and the Timbers currently sit at the bottom of the league table.

The Fire can thank the MLS schedule makers for adding a few layers of intrigue and drama to the first meeting between the clubs. Thursday, the Timbers will play their first home game in MLS, opening their renovated ground, Jeld-Wen Field, to what is sure to be a capacity crowd of rabid Timbers supporters.

The Fire, coming off a 2-1 defeat in front of 36,223 fans in Seattle on Saturday, are excited for another opportunity to play in a tough atmosphere.

We know that this game is going to be a lot harder than the Seattle game in terms of: expansion team, season opener, they havent won a game yet, and theyre going to have a lot to prove to their fans, Gibbs said. We should expect a lot of pressure in terms of intensity from them, and aggression from them.

Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos isnt keen on overhyping the game, but sees an opportunity for his squad to right the ship after a strong, but ultimately disappointing result in Seattle.

Each match is a different situation, de los Cobos said on a conference call Thursday. Portland is a new team in the league, but the attitude for sure will be very important for this kind of match, because we are coming with a bad result we need to add points. Portland is in front of its fans, but we keep playing like we are playing, good results are coming for us.

The story through the Fires opening matches has been strong play, but missed opportunities. Given their form, the Fire could easily be 3-0-0 instead of 1-1-1.

We just need to fine tune a couple of things we made mistakes on and easily the game could have gone the other way, Gibbs said. We left out of that game in Seattle, in all honesty, with a lot of confidence, knowing that even though we werent victorious in that game, were going to have a bright future if we play together and just believe in one another.

In each of the Fires first three games, striker Gaston Puerari has had breakaway opportunities, going one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Against FC Dallas and Seattle, Pueraris shots were saved. Gibbs brought up the breakaways as missed chances, but both he and de los Cobos pointed Seattles opening goal as something that cannot happen again.

Both said that goal, a header scored by Sounders forward OBrian White from 16 yards out, was a momentary lapse of strong play for the Fire. Even double-marked, White was still able to win the ball in the air and send it into the net. Portlands best chances on Thursday will likely come in a similar form.

The Timbers star, six-foot-three striker Kenny Cooper, poses an arial threat the Fire havent yet seen this season. The lessons of Whites goal Saturday have not been lost on de los Cobos, and the team has prepared in training to shut down the arial game.

We need to stay alert about this kind of situation, de los Cobos said. Against Seattle, we had one mistake in the box, one cross, and this guy OBrian White take advantage about this. Overall, with Cooper, he is better with the head. We need to stay alert, we need to stay close with him.

Gibbs play on the backline will be vital to making those tactics work. After injuring his right groin last week, Gibbs was a game-time decision for the Fire on Saturday. Gibbs played, despite not being 100 percent, and went the full 90 minutes in the loss.

The Fire is set to play three games in eight days, a stretch that ends Sunday at Toyota Park against the Los Angeles Galaxy, and with centerback Josip Mikilic out indefinitely, more injuries to the backline could be detrimental to positive results.

Ive always had the mentality where if I was somewhat ready, Im definitely going to go, Gibbs said. Thats what Ive been brought here to do. Im not trying to sit out. It just feels good to go 100 percent at training again without any qualms.

Gibbs expects to play both Thursday and Sunday. After all, these are the games he plays for.

Even though we have a quick turnaround, and we get back late Friday from Portland, you look forward to get another opportunity in terms of playing big games like we are going to do Sunday, Gibbs said. Its a great challenge for us in terms of testing our morale and testing where we are as a team.

Gibbs said that hell be sad to see the stretch of big-time games stop.

How great would it be if we turned around after Sunday and played Salt Lake? Gibbs said. For me, Salt Lake is on the top of their game, and we strive to play teams in games like that. You look to play these big games. As a team, weve all understood that. And Thursday, in Portland, in their season opener is something were biting for and we cant wait to step on that field Thursday and then turn around Sunday. Not looking past Portland, but knowing that Sunday is going to be another huge one.

The Fire and Timbers will kick off at 10 pm central Thursday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.