PORTLAND — Coach John Spencer says his Portland Timbers are one quality play away from producing a goal, and one goal away from producing the consistent scoring needed to win Major League Soccer matches.
Might the Timbers actually be one quality player away from returning to a team that can put opponents on their heels?
Three wide midfielders who were counted upon to pressure opposing defenses and to deliver the crossing passes for striker Kris Boyd have been on the wrong side of the sideline this season. Kalif Alhassan, Franck Songo’o and Sal Zizzo have been sidelined with knee injuries, taking much of the potential for offensive flair out of Portland’s lineup.
That could change as soon as Sunday’s home match against the Chicago Fire. Songo’o has seen action in the last eight matches but has not played a full game. Alhassan has missed four-plus games — his absence mirroring the Timbers scoreless stretch — but has returned to training and is listed as probable for the Chicago contest.
Then there is Zizzo. One of the fastest players in Major League Soccer, Zizzo tore the ACL in his left knee during the Timbers final home game of 2011. On Tuesday at Houston, seven months after suffering the injury against the Dynamo, Zizzo saw his first MLS action of 2012. He played the final 30 minutes.
“It felt good to finally come back, and against the same team that I tore it against — got that out of the way,” Zizzo said. “I thought I played well at times and felt good overall.”
This was the second time Zizzo has torn the ACL in his left knee, so he understood it would take months of hard work to get back on the soccer field.
“It was a long rehab,” he said, noting that his was seven months and one day between the injury and his MLS return. He admits he wasn’t the most patient of patients.
“That whole process is pretty hard to handle, because as an athlete you always want to come back as quickly as possible,” Zizzo said.
Especially when your team goes through a scoring drought that has now grown to 427 minutes not including stoppage time.
Spencer’s attack is built upon stretching defenses with speed on the perimeter to create space for strikers to score. Zizzo, Alhassan and Songo’o each bring different skills to the wing position, but each has the ability to make an opponent worry, and to give Boyd and Darlington Nagbe the kind of service the coach said is the missing piece.
“The buildup from the back four and in midfield has actually been pretty good the last couple of weeks,” Spencer said. “It’s just the final ball. The quality of service on the final pass, the penetration pass into the forwards is just letting us down a little bit.”
Zizzo said the team is nowhere near as down as their position at the bottom of the Western Conference standings might indicate.
“Soccer is weird. Now we’re getting shutouts (from the defense) and we’re not scoring goals. We’ve just got to piece it all together. It’ll come around,” Zizzo said.
“I still think the energy level is high. We just need to get on a roll, and I think that will happen. We win the next game, and then it becomes contagious through the whole team.”