Qualifying for the playoffs is one thing. But with each monster the Timbers slay and isle Portland escapes on their odyssey from mediocrity to excellence, the next demon poses a greater challenge than the one before.
No challenge has been greater for Caleb Porter and the Timbers to date than Real Salt Lake, one of only two Western Conference teams Portland failed to beat in 2013, despite four attempts to do so. While the Timbers generated the bulk of the good chances on Saturday, the end result remained the same, as the Timbers could only come away with a scoreless draw with the Claret and Cobalt.
The Timbers had a promising start to the game, creating a couple half chances in the early going including a Kalif Alhassan 2012 vintage ball bent high and wide of the far post and a Futty header that looked destined to be tapped in but for a saving RSL clearance.
After fifteen minutes, however, Salt Lake got their foot on the ball and kept it there for the better part of a quarter hour. The Claret and Cobalt, however, couldn’t muster more than a Chris Wingert 12th minute cross that Luis Gil sent well wide and a 26th minute set piece from Kyle Beckerman that Chris Schuler drove off frame. Notably, those two opportunities were arguably RSL’s best chances of the day.
Portland nearly found the spectacular in the 28th minute. After Donovan Ricketts came well off his line to clear a long ball, he picked out Jose Valencia streaking toward the corner flag. The Colombian target skidded a low cross across the box, but Valeri looked caught off guard by a Darlington Nagbe dummy, and skied his finish.
Valencia was catalyzing again fifteen minutes later, when he beat Schuler to a ball in the corner and turned in toward goal. Some slick ballwork got him to the face of goal, but his final pass skimmed just beyond Alhassan’s outstretched leg.
If chances were sparse in the first half, they were even scarcer in the second. Knowing that a loss would substantially prejudice their Western Conference playoff position, both midfields doggedly held their organization and refused to take much in the way of chances.
The two genuine chances that did present themselves, however, again belonged to the Timbers, and this time would only be denied by some tremendous work from Nick Rimando.
In the 65th minute, some more great play by Valencia to head the ball to Jack Jewsbury on the right wing freed the stately right back to fire a ball into the box that fell to Alhassan at the far post, but Nick Rimando recovered brilliantly to swallow Kalif’s goal-bound finish.
The clock ticked and the tension built, but into second half stoppage time it didn’t look like either team was very close to the winner.
In a moment that was oh-so-close to making everybody forget about Andrew Jean-Baptiste’s last gasp winner against L.A. Galaxy, however, the Timbers nearly set Jeld-Wen afire. Nearly. Given a free kick just 20 yards from goal, Will Johnson drove the ball over the wall and on frame, where Rimando could only palm it skyward. In what appeared to be the game’s fateful second, the ball fell straight to Sal Zizzo in the six yard box, but Rimando again showed why he’s the best goalkeeper in MLS, swatting Zizzo’s point blank header away from goal.
A combination of imperfect execution, bad luck, and magnificence by Nick Rimando kept the Timbers from taking all three points and keeping pace with New York in the Supporters Shield race.
I thought Porter’s tactics were interesting considering his set up. With Nagbe and Alhassan on the wings, I thought Porter was going to bring both fullbacks forward with his wings floating central, and drop either Chara or Johnson a little deeper to fill the hole. Instead, Caleb’s tactics were a little more standard, having Harrington come forward more, while Jewsbury tended to stay put. The Timbers, then, really didn’t overload the midfield, as an aggressive Porter has tried to do against RSL – with mixed success – in the past. Pushing both fullbacks on, obviously, leaves the Timbers a little bit more exposed, as it pulls the center backs wider and leaves more space for opposing counters.
Porter’s conservatism is understandable considering RSL’s attacking lineup. With more of the attacking onus on Luis Gil in Javi Morales’s absence, it was reasonable to expect RSL to try to use Alvaro Sabrio in hold up play and be very aggressive in running Gil and Robbie Findley off of Sabo. If the Timbers had pushed both fullbacks on, it would have been easy for Gil and Findley to get in behind the Timbers holding midfielder and create numbers problems for the stranded center backs.
So, while the Timbers probably could have used the extra spacing in the midfield to overwhelm RSL’s diamond, it would have made them vulnerable on the counterattack. As it was, Porter played it a little bit more conservatively with a more traditional backline. The result was a little bit of a midfield stalemate, with two very organized, very good defensive midfields largely winning the battle against their attacking counterparts.
While I was high on the prospect of pushing both fullbacks forward pre game, Porter’s decision to play it straight was prudent. The Timbers created no fewer than four good scoring chances, which is as many as we’ve seen from this more playoff-oriented Timbers team down the stretch. The disappointment in the result was more a function of great goalkeeping and just missing on a couple connections than it was an inability to create opportunities. And notably, Portland didn’t give up a single legitimate chance all night. In the end, only one team had a real chance to win the game, even if it didn’t quite pan out. That’s really all you can ask for from a coach.
Donovan Ricketts, 5 – Did nothing. RSL didn’t have a single shot on goal, or really have any dangerous moments that required intervention from Ricketts. Really disappointed his team couldn’t pull a goal in the 28th minute to give Ricketts what would have been a spectacular secondary assist.
Michael Harrington, 5.5 – It’s going to be nice when Harrington can be the holding fullback, as his contributions to the attack really are modest. Defensively, however, he was solid once again.
Pa Modou Kah, 6 – Came out for a couple challenges that he failed to win which left the Timbers momentarily exposed, but otherwise had a very solid game in back.
Futty, 7 – A pretty sharp game from Futty. It looked like RSL was trying to run off him more than Kah, but Futty was more than up to the task.
Jack Jewsbury, 7 – I’m becoming a real fan of Jack at right back. His skill set is uniquely flawed so as to make him a perfect primarily stay-at-home fullback. He’s smart, distributes well from the back, and fills in nicely centrally when he and (usually) Will Johnson are forced to momentarily flip roles. Despite not bombing on, as Caleb Porter would put it, Jack also finds ways to contribute offensively, prominently including his ability to whip nice crosses into the box from deeper positions. Simply put, Jack doesn’t need to get to the byline to be effective offensively, so he can contribute in the attack while not exposing his lack of footspeed.
Will Johnson, 7.5 – The Timbers’ defensive midfield was nothing short of masterful on Saturday. RSL really had nothing all day, and Will Johnson and Diego Chara are the primary reasons why.
Diego Chara, 7.5 – See above.
Darlington Nagbe, 5 – Really didn’t have much of an opportunity with the RSL defense keying on him all day.
Diego Valeri, 5 – After the game Valeri suggested he felt close to 100%, but he wasn’t as sharp as a 100% healthy Valeri usually is. Don’t be surprised if the Timbers hold him back next week to be used only if they’re chasing a goal.
Kalif Alhassan, 4 – Was a beat off in just about every respect on Saturday, as his ball movement was a little slow, his runs were a step late, and his finishes were not quite right. That said, whereas Kalif in the past has checked out of games when he wasn’t firing on all cylinders, engagement wasn’t a problem on Saturday.
Jose Valencia, 6 – No, he wasn’t perfect, as he showed some of the passing reluctance that has been an issue before. But, especially in the first half, Valencia was the Timbers’ only real offensive threat, using his athleticism to provide an outlet, and working the ball in front of goal after chasing balls down in the corner.
Rodney Wallace, 6 – While he was generally well-defended, the additional direct threat Rodney posed made the Timbers more dangerous after he came on.
Frederic Piquionne, 5.5 – He didn’t provide the outlet or work rate Valencia did because of his athletic deficits relative to Trencito, but Piquionne is still a perfect late game substitute. He wins every header on long balls and provides the greatest box presence of any Timber.
Sal Zizzo, 5 – Oh, so close to legendary.
Preseason Prediction: Timbers 1, RSL 0. Ryan Johnson.
Actual Result: Timbers 0, RSL 0.
Onward, Rose City.