Match Report: Real Points, Not Style Points

The Timbers have earned a lot of style points in 2013.  Throughout much of the season, they’ve looked to the naked eye like one of the best teams in MLS.  And yet, coming into Friday’s match against Colorado, Portland sat in fifth place in the West with playoff qualification hanging in the balance.

So, if you’d been told a team lost on Friday despite holding a small majority of the ball, a 13-9 advantage in shots, a 9-3 advantage in corners, and an 18-12 advantage in open play crosses, it would have been understandable if you started questioning whether Portland could make the playoffs.

But the script was flipped at Jeld-Wen on Friday, and in the light of Saturday, the Timbers sit an enviable third in the conference with five points separating them and the red line.  In as ugly a win as the Timbers have logged in 2013, Portland rode a beautiful Diego Valeri chip to a 1-0 win over the playoff rival Colorado Rapids.

Valeri’s quality showed itself early to provide the final margin.  After Maxi Urruti forced a somewhat-harried Drew Moor 13th minute clearance, Rodney Wallace got head to the driven ball and redirected it to the feet of Valeri.  Under pressure from Moor, Valeri needed only one touch to chip over a caught-out Clint Irwin and fill the net.

Colorado held a lot of the ball early, and earned more than their fair share of attacking set pieces, but ultimately couldn’t create anything meaningful.  Portland, on the other hand, sat back under Colorado’s pressure and nearly found a second in the 29th minute.

After Diego Valeri won a rare second ball, he magnificently played to Darlington Nagbe near the centerline just in front of Colorado’s high backline.  Nagbe showed his quality to touch Urruti through onto the break, but Irwin came out to make a great save.

In the 38th minute, Portland’s defense made a major mistake that they nearly paid the price for.  After Marvell Wynne played a hopeful cross into the box, Futty came out to routinely clear, but misplayed the ball straight to Buddle in the box.  With only Donovan Ricketts standing between he and an open net, Buddle bungled the ball into the far post before being controversially – but arguably correctly[1] – flagged offside.

The halftime stat sheet was ugly for Portland, but the scoreline wasn’t unjust.  Despite Colorado having a slew of set piece chances and crosses into the box, they really weren’t terribly dangerous.  And when they were, the finish was usually Buddled.

Slowly but surely, the Timbers put their foot on the game in the second half.  In the 54th minute, after Michael Harrington and Wallace earned a little bit of space off of a throw in from the Timbers left side, Harrington whipped a tremendous cross into the box to Urruti, but the young striker couldn’t get solid head to it.

Colorado’s only serous chance of the half came in the 63rd minute.  After the Timbers struggled to clear another set piece – something that plagued them all day and, to some extent, has all season – Buddle found space to turn and shoot at the top of the box, but, not surprisingly, failed to put it on frame.

Seven minutes later, Rodney Wallace went close twice.  In the 70th minute, Valeri drove a free kick from the right wing into the box, where Wallace attacked it on the near side, but his header flashed wide.  A minute later, Valeri, Nagbe, and Ryan Johnson combined to buy Wallace a foot of space on the left, but he hit his left footed strike just outside the near post under considerable pressure from Wynne.

As the second half wore on, the Timbers looked increasingly poised to ride out their one-goal advantage.  With Johnson providing some valuable holdup play, Portland held the ball much better than in the first half, and the Colorado half-chances became fewer and farther between.

Sure, there was a Gabriel Torres crack from distance here, and a Timbers scuffed clearance there, but the Rapids – as they’d been all evening – were poor.  Their one shot on frame is inexplicable considering the multitude of attacking set pieces Colorado earned.  But while Colorado were more offensively promiscuous, the Timbers were far and away more dangerous.

In that respect, then, the three points were just for the Timbers.  As the Timbers have found out too many times this season, soccer ultimately isn’t a game about possession or crosses.  It’s about goals.  The Timbers had one, and Colorado had zero.  And, viewing the game as a whole, that’s not all that surprising.  Portland will gladly take real points over style.

Match Observations

  • Portland’s defense deserves some credit for Colorado’s failure to put anything dangerous on frame despite loads of possession and set plays.  But Portland has to be better at relieving pressure.  The Rapids were simply wasteful, and you can bet L.A. Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, and the Sounders won’t be quite so generous.  If the Timbers can’t get dangerous balls clear and get out from under their own goalposts, they’re going to have a rough time in the final month of the season.
  • Colorado deserves credit for their game plan.  Their midfield played very high, applying pressure to the Timbers the second they got their foot on the ball.  As a result, the Timbers were forced to play very direct early on, which the Timbers really weren’t set up to do up top.  But for their ineptitude in the final third, Colorado’s strategy may well have paid off.

Timbers Grades

Donovan Ricketts, 5 – It’s not that he was poor, just that he didn’t have anything major to do.  Would like to see him put two hands on a few more of those crosses, though.

Michael Harrington, 6 – Defended well and hit his best cross of the season.  Pretty unlucky not to come away with an assist.

Futty, 5.5 – Had an overall solid day, but it was his gaffe that gave Colorado their best (read: only real) chance of the day.

Pa Modou Kah, 6 – Had a good day on the whole, but he’s developed a bad habit of coming well forward to challenge for a ball, then losing it.  If Kah is going to come up like that, he must win the ball.  The Timbers weren’t punished for that on Friday, but if he keeps it up, they will be.

Jack Jewsbury, 6 – Caleb Porter wanted to introduce a little bit more experience and steadiness to the Timbers backline.  That’s exactly what Jewsbury gave him.  Assuming he stays healthy, expect Jewsbury to be the regular right back from here on out.

Will Johnson, 5 – Another quiet night for Johnson, as Chara was the most industrious of the defensive central midfielders.  Colorado showed him a good amount of respect, however, insofar as they generally steered away from Will.  Had a number of squirrely clearances, however, which is a little bit uncharacteristic.

Diego Chara, 7 – One of the few Timbers that didn’t look put off by Colorado’s pressure.  Chara was his typical sidling self.  Also, apparently does a solid gymnastics floor routine.

Rodney Wallace, 7 – His header to redirect Moor’s clearance to the feet of Valeri was tremendous, if perhaps a little bit lucky.  Still, Rodney had a good night on both sides of the ball, even if his finishing touch was a little bit off.

Diego Valeri, 8 – Okay, so he didn’t get that many chances to make his case for MVP, but the one he did get was decisive.

Darlington Nagbe, 6.5 – There weren’t a ton of chances for Nagbe to strut his now-hyped stuff, but when he did get a chance, he showed it nicely.  His pass to Urruti to set the Argentine free was outstanding, but a play later in the first half in which he found two consecutive Rapids’ five-holes was transcendent.

Maxi Urruti, 3 – Colorado forced the Timbers to go direct, and Urruti was wholly unprepared to contribute in that way.  Despite a number of balls thumped his way, Urruti won one header, which is particularly eye-popping in light of Ryan Johnson’s six in half the time.  Contributed to the goal with a little bit of pressure, but that’s really to be expected of him.

Ryan Johnson, 7 – If you’re result-oriented in how you judge your striker play, you hate this grade.  But the Rapids were pressing just as high – if not higher – when Johnson was in the game, yet the Timbers were able to manage it and get their foot on the ball much more.  Why?  Because Ryan Johnson won balls and held up the play to let the Timbers press their lines up.  That, in that situation, was as valuable as a goal.

Kalif Alhassan, 4 – Was smart to pull the ball back a couple times late in the game rather than go at goal, but ultimately needs to be better defensively if he wants to get on the field in close games once Valeri is back to full fitness.

Ben Zemanski, INC.

Preseason Prediction: Timbers 0, Rapids 0.
Actual Result: Timbers 1, Rapids 0.

Onward, Rose City!

[1] Buddle was offside when Wynne sent his initial ball toward the box.  If the assistant referee determined that Futty’s play was a deflection, Buddle was offside.  If Futty’s play was an attempted pass, then Buddle wasn’t.  In this case, I think the play is close enough that you can’t fault the linesman too vigorously.

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