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Jul 1, 2008

Timbers still struggling on offense

A few USL-1 teams were able to rest this weekend in preparation for third-round U.S. Open Cup games this week, but others, such as the Charleston Battery, Seattle Sounders and Rochester Rhinos, had to play. The remaining USL-1 teams in the Cup all play games against MLS teams, and the only USL-1 team to win the Cup, Rochester, is still in the tournament. A few take-homes from the weekend's action:

1. Atlanta forwards stymied. Ansu Toure and Macoumba Kandji have provided some pretty good action up front this season for the Atlanta Silverbacks. Toure, with his flame-colored hair and boots to match, and Kandji, with his tall, lanky stature, usually give defenders quite a scare when they have the ball at the right end of the field. But against Portland at home Saturday for their 2-0 loss, neither Toure or Kandji could find the tricks to get past the Timbers' defense. Granted, there was one inexplicable call by the referee: Of all the shirt pulling on both sides of the field, the ref chose to call a foul on Kandji, although it was clear he already was in an advantageous position inside the box. Go figure. But the true obstacle to Kandji and Toure's efforts was not the Portland defenders, but more so keeper Ray Burse.

2. Still offensively challenged. Despite Portland's ability to stop Kandji and Toure, the Timbers still have offensive trouble. The two goals Portland scored against Atlanta seem -- at least mathematically -- more because of luck than anything else. Of only four shots total, the Timbers scored on two. And one of those goals was a crazy flying ninja kick from Chris Bagley that luckily didn't take off Atlanta keeper Ryan McIntosh's face. The offensive partnership of Takayuki Suzuki and Chris Brown seems to have dissipated, and the injections of Bryan Jordan and Benjamin Totori have had mixed results for the Timbers. The Timbers probably were relieved to get the points, regardless of style, but here's hoping they have a backup plan for what'll happen if the odds don't work out next time.

3. Charleston to pull off an upset? With the third round of the U.S. Open Cup set to take place this week, the number of USL-1 teams still alive has been narrowed down to five -- Charleston Battery, Carolina RailHawks, Miami FC Blues, Seattle Sounders and Rochester Rhinos. One of the most interesting third-round games takes place Tuesday, with the in-form Charleston Battery taking on the Houston Dynamo. Last year the Battery managed to kick out the Dynamo, falling only to FC Dallas -- which eventually lost in the U.S. Open Cup final. Considering the recent successes of the Battery, and the scoring power of some of their forwards such as Randi Patterson and Aaron King, the Battery once again could give Houston a run for its money. It's a little early to predict a USL-1 overall champion, but out of the five remaining USL teams, the Battery look like one of the more likely to pull off something like that.

4. Depleted midfield. After Ricardo Sanchez was ejected in the Minnesota Thunder's 1-0 loss to Puerto Rico, the Thunders' midfield looked makeshift for its next game, a 3-1 loss again to Puerto Rico just two days later. Defender Tighe Dombrowski played in a midfield role, but although he had some decent skills, the midfield as a whole was a bit out of whack. In the first half of the game, Aaron Paye was playing farther back, trying to get balls forward. But in the second half, defender Kevin Taylor played very far forward at times. The Thunder eventually packed the midfield with a 3-4-3 in an effort to get the ball forward and keep possession, but ultimately weren't successful in fending off the attacking Islanders.

5. There's no place like home. The Thunder, after starting off the season well, have had a miserable June with no wins in six games. They've moved their base of operations from Griffin Stadium in central St. Paul, Minn., to the National Sports Center in suburban Blaine, Minn. The Thunder faithful have debated whether the move has had a negative impact on the team. But the Thunder have seven games in a row at home coming up in July and August, and if they regain the winning finesse they had at the beginning of the season, they once again could be back at the top of the standings.

Editor's note: There are three divisions in the United Soccer Leagues: USL-1, USL-2 and the Premier Development League (PDL). USL is not affiliated with Major League Soccer.

Anne Ramzy is a freelance sportswriter based near San Francisco. She also is a frequent guest on the weekly soccer podcast on www.theoffside.com and can be reached at anneramzy@gmail.com.

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