Match Report: Timbers Come Undone Early in Columbus

Several times in 2013, the Portland Timbers have used pluck, opportunism, and a little luck to climb out of holes they’ve dug on the road.  On Sunday in Columbus, the Timbers summoned the pluck again, but ran out of opportunism and luck in a 1-0 defeat to the Columbus Crew.

The first twelve minutes undid the Timbers in Columbus.  After conceding an early corner, Federico Higuain found Bernardo Anor a yard outside the six-yard box – with the Timbers defense sitting a yard inside the six-yard box – and the Venezuelan nodded the ball between Donovan Ricketts and Kalif Alhassan for the opener.

Things went from bad to worse six minutes later when Pa Modou Kah – who had already been booked in the sixth minute for taking down Dominic Oduro from behind – lost track of a ball in the box and kicked Aaron Schoenfeld in the head trying to recover.  The referee whistled for a clear penalty and issued Kah a red card for his clumsiness.  With the Timbers down to ten, Pipa breathed life into Portland by pulling his penalty wide in the face of a correctly guessing Donovan Ricketts.

Portland responded well, and over the course of the first half slowly regained control of the match.

If much of the ball belonged to Portland, the chances belonged to Columbus.  After a Crew half chance was cleared as far as Higuain 25 yards from goal, the Argentinian found Josh Williams on the right side of the box.  Ricketts came out, but couldn’t reach the ball before the young right back, who chipped in front of goal only to have Futty clear.

The Crew nearly opened Portland up again in the 32nd minute when Pipa set Oduro free in the box, but this time Futty cut him off and forced him to lay it back to Schoenfeld whose chip sailed high and wide.

As the half went along, however, the Timbers shifted onto their front foot.  In the 42nd minute Darlington Nagbe made a great run into the box to have a shot blocked, but regained control and played to Jack Jewsbury on the right.  The captain sent the ball to Ben Zemanski in the middle, but the back-leaning midfielder skied his free effort form 20 yards.

If the chances were lacking in the first half, they weren’t in the second.  After the Timbers had Columbus pinned in their own end for extended stretches early on, Diego Valeri found Andrew Jean-Baptiste free at the back post on a corner kick, but the nearly fledged defender’s header sailed just wide of the far post.

Oduro nearly put the Timbers away in the 65th minute when Portland turned the ball over in midfield and Higuain fed the Ghanaian at the top of the box, but his shot skidded just wide of the far post.

As the half went along, the extra miles put in by the ten-man Timbers began to take their toll.  In the 75th minute, that fatigue almost ended Portland’s day, but Ricketts came up huge to keep the Timbers in the game.  After Higuain[1] set yet another Crewmate through on goal, Ethan Finlay nodded toward the top, but a jumping Ricketts caught just enough of the ball with his trailing hand to knock it over the bar.

Two minutes later, things should have been level.  After Jose Valencia tracked a ball down six yards out on the right side, he cut it back to Valeri open at the top of the box, but the Argentine talisman sent it uncharacteristically high.

The Timbers’ third big chance came by way of a one-man show from Darlington Nagbe.  After making a 60-yard run down the left sideline, Nagbe cut back toward the center near the top of the box and unleashed a right-footed shot that looked like a candidate to find the far side netting, but fill-in Columbus keeper Matt Lampson dove well to his left to parry away.

The Timbers heavy legs ultimately kept them from making a concerted push for the point.  Despite controlling much of the match while being a man down, Portland had three good chances to find an equalizer and keep their 15-match streak alive.  Unlike the previous times they’ve faced deficits away from the Rose City, each time on Sunday the Timbers came up short.

Notes & Observations

  • Make no mistake, the Timbers probably win that game with eleven men, early concession or no early concession.  Portland employed a similar tactical set up to that which they showed in Chicago, where the Timbers pushed both fullbacks forward, split the centerbacks wide and dropped a defensive central midfielder – usually Diego Chara – back into the gap.  The result was a fair amount of space in the Columbus midfield, but Portland was unable to take full advantage due to Kalif Alhassan’s absence after Kah’s sending off.  In trying to utilize this space, the Timbers desperately needed one more player to combine with to try to bend Columbus’s backline out of shape.  That guy would have been Kalif, but he was necessarily sacrificed to bring Futty on.
  • Given his druthers, I think Caleb Porter would have liked to bring Frederic Piquionne on for Ben Zemanski[2] at halftime and shift to a diamond 4-4-1 look with Piquionne up top as a direct threat, Ryan Johnson sitting underneath as almost a second forward, Valeri on the right, Nagbe on the left, and Chara in the hole.  In this scheme, the Timbers would have held the ball a little bit deeper, but had much more potency playing direct – something they should have been fairly effective in doing with both fullbacks being aggressive, retaining plenty of central-leaning midfield talent in Nagbe and Valeri, and the center back tandem of Futty and Jean-Baptiste looking up to the task of keeping the back on lockdown.  Unfortunately, Piquionne was busy trying to make sure Will Johnson returned to the Timbers fold in short order, so Porter found himself with a very depleted set of options off the bench.
  • In this respect, while much of the punditry has latched onto the absence of Will Johnson as a reason Portland couldn’t find their way back, I think Piquionne’s preoccupation at the Rose Bowl was even more significant.

Timbers Grades 

Donovan Ricketts, 7.5 – To be honest, Donovan didn’t nearly as much to do as you’d expect after playing with ten men for 80 minutes.  His 75th minute robbery of Finlay was maybe his best save of the year, though.

Michael Harrington, 5.5 – Wasn’t a target defensively and wasn’t the focus offensively – other than his role in opening space centrally.  It was a fine performance for Mikey, who has now strung a series of them together.

Pa Modou Kah, 1 – Hard to imagine a worse ten minutes for Kah.  He’s shown a knack for risky defending in the past, and it really came back to bite him against Columbus.  Still, ten minutes a player does not break, so don’t quit on Kah just yet.

Andrew Jean-Baptiste, 5.5 – His grade is flattened just a little bit because he was in charge of the set piece defense on the near side that was overwhelmed on the concession.  Also needs to put his 55th minute header on frame, as that was a pretty juicy ball from Valeri.  Other than that, however, AJB did a lot more right than wrong.

Jack Jewsbury, 5.5 – Spent a lot of time forward on Sunday and had a few nice balls into the box.  Maybe a little bit upset Zemanski didn’t put his 42nd minute pass on frame, as it would have been a just assist for Jewsbury.

Diego Chara, 4.5 – A little bit flat from Chara.  Zemanski was taking the primary box-to-box responsibilities, while Chara spent an awful lot of time hanging back between the two center backs.  As a result, Diego wasn’t really his sidling, tackling, and distributing self.[3]

Ben Zemanski, 6 – Should have done better in the 42nd minute,[4] but did a pretty darn good Will Johnson impression for much of the game – working his way all over the field.

Darlington Nagbe, 4.5 – Bears some culpability on the concession, as he did a poor job of fighting from the top to contest the ball coming in at the near post.

Diego Valeri, 6.5 – Needed to do better on his big chance, but was the Timbers’ most dangerous player going forward.  The biggest boon to his grade, however, was his set piece delivery, which was nothing short of expert on Sunday.

Kalif Alhassan, INC. – Never really got a chance to work his way into the game before he was sacrificed in favor of Futty.

Ryan Johnson, 4 – This was a tough spot for Ryan, as he’s not the type of lone target Piquionne is.  Ryan is best when he can combine in the midfield a bit and make a late run, but – for the reasons discussed above – the Timbers were destined to struggle at that game given the personnel available.

Futty, 7.5 – Great game from Futty.  Was tasked with bottling up the Dominic Oduro that was way too much for Kah, and did so seemingly with ease.

Jose Valencia, 5.5 – By the time he’d come on, the legs were going and the team was settling for sending long balls forward to him.  Didn’t have many chances from which to make hay, but did nicely in the 77th minute to set up Valeri.

Michael Nanchoff, INC. – Even more than Valencia, by the time Nanchoff came on the rest of the team had run out of gas.

Preseason Prediction: Timbers 2, Crew 1.  Ryan Johnson, Jose Valencia.
Actual Result: Crew 1, Timbers 0.

Onward, Rose City!

[1] Pipa received 3% of the vote in Columbus’s Man of the Match early balloting, from which we can extrapolate that 97% of Columbusites have no idea what they’re talking about.  As a subfootnote, nobody seems to know what the demonym for a person from Columbus is, including my local Columbusian (pronounced Colum-BOOZ-ian; also made up) expert.

[2] This is no impeachment of Zemanski, who was more than adequate in Will Johnson’s stead.

[3] I’d say Chara should have done better in defending the set piece, but, let’s be honest, he never had a chance.

[4] In fairness, the pass from Jewbsury could have used a little bit more pace so Zemanski could hit it leaning forward on the run rather than leaning back while applying the brakes.

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