Everybody knew the Portland Timbers were going to control possession and try to pass its way through the Montreal defense on Saturday night. And everybody also knew the Impact were going to sit back, absorb the pressure, and look to break out and hit the Timbers on the break.
That’s exactly what happened, and the result was a 2-1 Montreal win that easily could have been more lopsided.
Montreal should have opened the scoring in the eighth minute, when Marco Di Vaio set up a wide-open Felipe at the top of the box, only to have the Brazilian roll his shot just wide of the far post.
The Timbers almost gifted Montreal again three minutes later after Ryan Miller and Andrew Jean-Baptiste thought it more important to hold down their spot on the turf than mark Di Vaio. Not surprisingly, Di Vaio got a free head to a cross from the right wing only to be kept out by a magnificently reacting Donovan Ricketts.
Although they held plenty of possession in the attacking half, Portland didn’t create a real chance until the 27th minute, when Ryan Johnson spun through the defense on the left side of the box, but rather than center to Darlington Nagbe, Johnson went at goal himself and was easily denied from a tight angle by Troy Perkins.
Montreal broke through three minutes later. After the flat-footed Timbers failed to clear a modest Andrea Pisanu set piece and the ball popped up in the box, Hassoun Camara knocked it past a helpless Ricketts with an impressive overhead volley.
The Timbers initially struggled to respond to the goal before eventually settling back into their pattern of possession and, ultimately, frustration. It was the referee, however, that likely sent Timbers PR staff scrambling to make sure Merritt Paulson’s phone was secured in the 40th minute, when Edvin Jurisevic wrongfully denied the Timbers a penalty after Sanna Nyassi shoved a free-running Ryan Miller from behind in the box. Some more positive play from the Timbers before halftime, however, couldn’t find an equalizer.
Coming out of the break, Montreal reset the parking break in front of goal – often putting eight blue shirts in and around the box. The result for Portland was plenty of possession, but tremendous difficulty making the final pass into a stuffed box.
The first real chance of the half came for Portland in the 57th minute, when Michael Harrington found some space on the left wing and sent a pretty bending ball toward Ryan Johnson at the far post, but Perkins arrived just in time to punch away.
Montreal gave Portland a mountain to climb three minutes later, however, when, after a botched interchange between Will Johnson and Ben Zemanski, Montreal gained possession in the midfield. Andres Romero slipped behind Will Johnson on the Timbers’ left flank and received a through ball, pulling Mikael Silvestre into a wider space where his defensing has been inconsistent. After Romero beat Silvestre with a low cross, Felipe sat all alone at the near post for the cakewalk finish.
It was Romero again that almost put the game away in the 64th minute when he easily beat a meek Timbers offside trap, but Michael Harrington cleared his Ricketts-beating chip at the face of goal to preserve the two-goal deficit.
Apparently frustrated by the defensive foibles, Andrew Jean-Baptiste tried to pull the Timbers back into the game two minutes later. Valeri found AJB at the top of the box after a corner was initially cleared, and after a couple nice touches between he and Zemanski, the center back hit a low shot at goal, but Perkins saved to his right.
In the 80th minute, Portland would finally pull a goal back. After Diego Chara switched to Zemanski on the right wing, the newcomer sent a quick cross into the far post that fell perfectly for Ryan Johnson to finish.
Although back in business, the Timbers defense would threaten once more to make any kind of result unattainable. After Romero breezed by Zemanski and got to the byline in the 87th minute, Donovan Ricketts fell to take the ball off his foot. The ball fell for Collen Warner, however, whose diving shot was saved by an outstretched, supine Ricketts.
From there, however, it was all about the Timbers’ desperate attempt to scratch out a draw. Despite finding a few looks, the Timbers couldn’t find anything dangerous enough to pull level and scratch out an improbable point.
The Timbers were lucky to get away with a 2-1 loss. Despite outshooting Montreal 19-9, holding 63% of the ball, and completing 566 passes, it was the Impact who had six of the eight truly threatening chances in the match. These facts extend a trend for the Timbers at home early this season, and highlight how susceptible Portland is to having teams come into Jeld-Wen, park the bus, and leave with a result delivered by counterattacks and Timbers’ defensive mistakes.
That Montreal was well suited to sit behind the ball and counterattack does not make their strategy unviable for other teams to emulate. As I discussed in The Morrison Report last week, the Timbers’ tactics make them especially susceptible to teams taking advantage of the considerable space in behind the Timbers’ very, very high fullbacks. Look back at the second concession. Although Johnson’s giveaway certainly wasn’t ideal, the Timbers were in real trouble because a moment before Michael Harrington had made a very premature, very aggressive run forward. Johnson failed to recognize the vulnerability and stayed in his central midfield defensive position, allowing Romero to run behind him into the space where Harrington would normally be. The result was Silvestre had to come out to try to cut off the cross, leaving nobody in front of goal to pick up a near post runner.
While Montreal may be better than most at lying deep and counterattacking, their tactics on Saturday weren’t rocket science. Given the Timbers’ defensive vulnerability, it is reasonable to be concerned that other teams could similarly sit back, knowing the Timbers’ defense will yield a handful of quality chances.
Almost any MLS team, at this point, has every reason right now to think that they can come into Jeld-Wen, play conservatively, get one or two goals out of it, and leave with at least a point. After all, including competitive first team preseason games, three of the last four teams to come into Jeld-Wen have scored multiple goals despite being significantly out-shot and out-possessed. It’s far from nonsense to think that other teams could employ a Montreal-like gameplan to some measure of success in Portland.
Donovan Ricketts, 7 – Boy, did the big fella’ ever show his old team! Joking aside, Ricketts was fantastic, making not one, but two tremendous saves. He still creates some nervous moments, but on Saturday they all turned out to be harmless.
Ryan Miller, 3 – Ineffective in the attack and poor in defense. What was he doing on that free Di Vaio header? Clearly neither covering it nor warning AJB of the danger.
Andrew Jean-Baptiste, 5 – Had some really nice moments of defending, but also was caught sleeping once or twice – including as noted above.
Mikael Silvestre, 4 – Had a much better outing than against New York, but still had his perimeter defending exposed on the second concession. Wasn’t entirely his fault, as his fullback was hanging out around midfield and nobody was covering, but he’s not exactly cleaning up others’ mistakes.
Michael Harrington, 3 – Is being put in a tough spot tactically, as its clear Porter has told he and Miller to play very high. But still, he needs to be a little bit more discerning about when he makes a run forward, or he’ll continue to hang his defensive partners out to dry.
Diego Chara, 6.5 – Completed over 90% of his 96 passes, won tackles, and recoveries. Typical day at the office for Diego Chara.
Will Johnson, 4 – Rough day from Will. Although he was his typical, solid self in the midfield, he fell asleep a little bit on the second concession and failed to cover for the absent Harrington on the left flank on the second concession.
Kalif Alhassan, 4.5 – My initial thought was this was a pretty poor performance from Kalif, but as I looked back my view softened a little bit. He had a couple wayward touches, and, as usual, didn’t contribute much defensively, but on the whole wasn’t awful – if a little more anonymous than we’ve seen him in his last few outings.
Diego Valeri, 6 – This has more to do with Montreal than anything, but Valeri really had nowhere to go much of the night. Always looking to make the final pass, Valeri more often than not looked up to see a wall of blue shirts in front of him. Still the most dangerous Timber on the field, though.
Darlington Nagbe, 6 – He didn’t make it on the scoresheet, but Nagbe had some periods of good work on the left side with Michael Harrington, and also contributed some handy defensive work.
Ryan Johnson, 5.5 – A tough game until the 80th minute. Scoring really helps a forward’s grade.
Ben Zemanski, 5 – Had some absolutely brutal moments, but his cross to Johnson was high, high quality.
Jose Valencia, 5 – Had a little bit of a quiet outing on Saturday. He hits a little bit better ball on that shot in stoppage, however, and his grade would have skyrocketed.
Rodney Wallace, INC. – Short, unspectacular spell for Rod.
Preseason Prediction: Timbers 2, Impact 1. Johnson, Nagbe.
Actual Result: Impact 2, Timbers 1. Johnson.
Onward, Rose City!
 The initial reaction from the play was that Miller made the most of the fall, and may have accordingly denied himself the penalty. After looking at the replay, I disagree. Considering he was shoved high, I don’t think the fall was all that embellished. Miller certainly didn’t put in a herculean effort to stay on his feet, but it’s not his responsibility to do so. In the end, it’s just the latest thread in an absurd string of penalties wrongfully denied to the Timbers at Jeld-Wen.
 For example, there was the time he took so many stutter steps on the way toward hitting a ball from distance that I remarked it looked like me taking that shot.