It was never going to be as easy against Real Salt Lake as it was against Seattle. But for a brief moment on Sunday, it appeared as though the Timbers fortunes had changed against the opponent that has been their Achilles heel in 2013.
After Chris Wingert gave the Timbers a free kick in the 14th minute by clearing out Diego Valeri 25 yards out and breaking his own rib in the process, Will Johnson smashed the set piece just over the wall and past the wrong-footed Nick Rimando for the opener.
And for the next 20 minutes, the match looked a lot like the first leg in Seattle. RSL had plenty of possession, a nice collection of half chances, but nothing especially dangerous to show for it. Maybe, just maybe, the Timbers could come back to Portland with the upper hand.
Well, that unraveled fast.
In the 35th minute, Javi Morales bent a corner kick into the box where Chris Schuler found the end of it by winning a grappling match with Futty, and nodded inside the far post for the equalizer.
Whereas the Timbers had looked passable defensively leading up to the equalizer, thereafter the wheels quickly fell off the wagon.
Three minutes later, on another Morales corner, Schuler get another glancing header on the ball, but his nod was headed well wide before being deflected goalward by Pa Modou Kah’s foot. Fortunately for Portland, Diego Valeri has his post covered and cleared off the line.
In the 41st minute, it just got worse. After a very hopeful long ball forward by Kyle Beckerman looked ripe to be cleared away by Futty, the Gambian botched his attempt to turn under some pressure from Robbie Findley, setting up the seemingly long-ago National Teamer for a chance even he couldn’t miss.
The 1-0 lead the Timbers looked likely to take into halftime quickly turned into a 2-1 deficit the Timbers were lucky to preserve.
Shortly after halftime the hole got even deeper. After Morales set Findley into space on the right in the 48th minute, Futty failed to block his cross, and Jack Jewsbury couldn’t prevent Devon Sandoval’s turn before the rookie slotted past Donovan Ricketts.
From there, the Timbers got their foot on the ball a bit more, but couldn’t string together anything remotely promising. Their effort to create space among the Claret-and-Cobalt’s diamond midfield was failing, as the Timbers were too disconnected among what seemed to be a sea of red shirts.
And in the 81st minute, Real Salt Lake nearly found their fourth. After RSL stretched the Timbers defense by taking the ball to the corner, they brought it back inside for Morales 25 yards from goal where he lofted a beautiful cross for Luis Gil running into the box, but Ricketts saved the ensuing header at full stretch.
There would be no heroics on the corner that followed. Just bad luck. Rather than head to the corner flag, Morales put himself in the box and got on the end of a ball shy of the near post. Morales’s header, by itself, was harmless, heading to the post covered by both Alhassan and Ricketts, but on its way it deflected off of Frederic Piquionne’s leg, altering its course just enough to skip past the Jamaican goalkeeper.
The Timbers looked dead in the water. Even the entrance of Jose Valencia and Frederic Piquionne only inserted marginal life into the attack. At 4-1, all seemed lost.
It’s remarkable, however, how much one moment can change the course of a soccer game and an aggregate goals series. And for the Timbers, that moment came just seconds before the final whistle. Jewsbury, who has been on the poor end of a handful of defensive plays, whipped a tremendous cross in from 35 yards out. Piquionne found his way onto the end of it ten yards from goal and snapped it into the corner to bring a goal back for Portland.
A game that was an emotional roller coaster turned out far from perfectly, but also not quite disastrously for the Timbers. The two weeks off will be helpful for a team that looked gassed on short rest and at elevation, and as the Timbers have found out to their detriment in the last two games, a game can turn around to the tune of a pair of goals seemingly in an instant.
Notes & Observations
The Timbers may have been punished a little bit for some tactical conventional wisdom. Against a diamond 4-4-2, Porter’s tendency – in line with the tactical paradigm – has been to try to create space in the midfield by stretching the attack laterally; giving the diamond the option of clogging the middle and giving up space in wide areas, or stretching to cover the flanks while opening space centrally.
Porter’s favorite way of doing this throughout the year has been to push both fullbacks high, drop one central midfielder or the other a little bit deeper, and stretch his center backs out a little bit wider to cover the space.
The problem on Sunday, however, was that it didn’t work in the attack. RSL found ways to force turnovers near midfield and create situations where they could run at the center backs in one-v-one situations. Both Futty and Kah are better organizers than one-v-one defenders. They’ve benefited greatly from having two dominant central midfielders sitting in front of them so they can sit back, organize their box, and clean up anything that leaks through the Timbers’ midfield wall.
Thus, having the fullbacks pressed high on Sunday exposed one of the Timbers’ biggest defensive weaknesses; one which RSL all too eagerly exploited.
While this strategy was very much in-character for Porter, I’m a little surprised he didn’t stick with the way he beat the diamond against Seattle; whiplashing it by overloading the left, sucking the diamond into that battle, then using a quick switch to open up the backline and get a cross into the box.
While RSL is better setup to handle such an attack than Seattle – on account of, you know, not starting Adam Moffat at left mid – it would have been at least as successful offensively as the Timbers stretch formation, while keeping a fullback tucked in to help defensively and provide some cover to prevent one-v-ones with the center backs.
Also, set piece defending. But we’ve covered that before.
Donovan Ricketts, 5 – Could have done better to close out on the second and third concessions, but that’s a tough play for a goalkeeper of Ricketts’ type (i.e., large). Great save to deny Gil’s header to momentarily keep things at 3-1.
Michael Harrington, 4 – Basically lived in no-man’s land all night. Struggled to meaningfully contribute to the attack, and his absence in defense was conspicuous. Not all his fault, however, as he was in the spots the tactical setup called for.
Futty, 2 – Ugh. So much here, but let’s focus on the first concession. Rather than grapple with Schuler – a fight Futty isn’t going to win often considering Schuler’s physicality and momentum coming forward on his run – he need to attack the ball. Even if he doesn’t get there, he makes Schuler’s header much more difficult by applying pressure and getting the RSL center back going away from the uncovered post.
Pa Modou Kah, 4.5 – By far the better of the Great Wall of Gambia, even if that isn’t saying a whole lot.
Jack Jewsbury, 4 – Needs to do better in defending Sandoval by either reading the play better to keep him from getting goalside of him, or, at least, keeping him from turning once he receives the pass.
Will Johnson, 4.5 – Brilliant strike to open the scoring, then seemed to drift out of the game. Even uncharacteristically bladed a couple set piece deliveries. 16 unsuccessful passes also demonstrates how tough things were for the Timbers in midfield yesterday.
Diego Chara, 5 – When things went well for the Timbers, it usually involved Chara. That wasn’t often, however.
Rodney Wallace, 3 – Nope, that didn’t work.
Diego Valeri, 5.5 – Was actually fine when he had a chance to do his thing, but those instances were very few and far between.
Darlington Nagbe, 6 – The best of the Timbers’ attack, Nagbe made several of his trademark runs forward, but nobody could get to a place to support him. As a result, they were often runs straight into multiple red shirts with no outlet.
Ryan Johnson, 4.5 – Not the type of game where RJ is going to be of much help, as the Timbers struggles in the midfield rendered meaningless his top-of-the-box combination prowess.
Kalif Alhassan, 4 – When he came on, I thought Alhassan’s ability to receive the ball, eliminate a defender or two, and find a pass was going to help the Timbers. Yeah, not so much.
Jose Valencia, 5 – When he came on, I thought his ability to find spaces to receive the ball and use his physicality to get at goal was going to help the Timbers. Yeah, not so much. He needed somebody to come up in support of him, but by the time he came on the legs were too tired and the midfield too beaten to be of aid.
Frederic Piquionne, 6.5 – When he came on, I thought his ability to grab a goal from nowhere by getting on the end of a cross would help the Timbers. Third time’s the charm, I guess.
Onward, Rose City!
 Yes, the Timbers didn’t beat RSL in 2012, either, but the Claret-and-Cobalt were hardly unique in that respect.