Match Report: Timbers Escape Galaxy, Enter Race for Universal Supremacy

As summer turned to fall, Caleb Porter began to talk more and more about grinding out results in tight games.  Throughout much of August, however, the Timbers showed a knack for leaving points on the table – passing the eyeball test, but failing on the scoreboard.

In two weeks, however, Portland has fulfilled their coach’s wish twice, once against a very hot team, and the other against a very good team; transforming the Timbers from a side hoping to hang on in the playoff race to the darkhorse in the quest for the Supporters Shield.

On Sunday, the Timbers beat the L.A. Galaxy 1-0 in a tight, but sloppy game that featured dominant defense and a paucity of chances.

The Timbers came out of the gates strong, as in their first foray forward, Rodney Wallace nearly found Maxi Urruti in the box, but the Galaxy recovered to clear.  The Timbers couldn’t string together a spell of pressure, however, and while Portland saw plenty of the ball, the Galaxy were the more threatening team in the first half hour.

In the 6th minute, a bad turnover in midfield by Darlington Nagbe allowed Gyasi Zardes to run into the teeth of the Timbers defense and fire a low, hard shot from distance, but Donovan Ricketts was there to block and prevent any rebound.

One of the Timbers’ few early offensive bright spots came from an unusual, albeit familiar place.  While Portland struggled to make anything serious of their buildup, Jack Jawsbury found space on the Galaxy’s left flank more than once in part because Nagbe was playing wider than normal, often occupying Todd Dunivant.  Jewsbury made something of this opportunity, including a great 24th minute cross to Urruti at the near post that was cleared away by a heroically recovering Kofi Opare.

The best chance of the half belonged to Marcelo Sarvas, however.  After a very nice spell of buildup by the Galaxy, Sarvas took a 27th minute lay off from Landon Donovan and fired from just inside 25 yards only to see his strike streak just wide.

Six minutes later, the Zardes found his second opportunity from distance after crossing up Will Johnson, but Ricketts saved falling to his right and Jewsbury cleaned up the spilled rebound.

As the half wore on, however, the Timbers offense began to look more dangerous.  After two consecutive spells of solid work in the attacking third, Diego Valeri zigzagged through the Galaxy defense and found a foot of space at the top of the box, but left the club face open on his finish looking for the top near corner.

There would be no missing on the Timbers’ first chance coming out of the half.  After the Timbers earned their first corner of the match in the 52nd minute, Will Johnson found Maxi Urruti just shy of the near post.  The Argentine that was somewhat maligned in this space a week ago flashed a foot toward the ball and redirected it beautifully inside the near post.

And Urruti wasn’t done.  Emboldened by his tally, Urruti chipped Wallace through on goal in the 57th minute, where the Timbers’ left midfield revelation unleashed a hard high shot that was unbelievably saved by Galaxy keeper Jaime Penedo.

Another chance for the sealer presented itself in the 71st minute, when Wallace intercepted an Omar Gonzalez pass and played a quick, but long give-and-go with Valeri, who sprung Wallace through on goal.  Rodney, however, had the ball on his disfavored right foot, and Penedo stretched to deny him again.

As the clocked ticked its way toward ninety, the Timbers increasingly looked to try to ride out the 1-0 scoreline.  For extended stretches, the Galaxy looked out of ideas, as their transition from midfield to the final third was thwarted by a stalwart Portland defense time and again, feeding a sense that if L.A. were to break through it would likely be on a set piece.

And in the 92nd minute, that suspicion very nearly became reality.  After the Galaxy earned a free kick 25 yards from goal just outside the corner of the box, Landon Donovan curled the ball near post where Robbie Keane got head to it and nodded it into the net.  The Irishman had been offside since well before the kick, however, and the referee’s assistant spotted it.  Keane can’t complain too much, as his offside positioning from start to finish on the free kick kept his mark loose from start to finish and contributed to his ability to get a clear head to the ball.

The win was reminiscent of the hallmark of the Timbers’ 15-game unbeaten streak.  While everybody remembers the eye candy wins over Houston and Sporting Kansas City, the streak was really marked by hard-earned results that didn’t always have the same aesthetic quality.  These were the 1-0 results over San Jose and Dallas and the road draws at Seattle, Colorado, Vancouver, and Los Angeles.

Ultimately, a team that is difficult to beat on the road and tough to draw at home is certainly a Supporters Shield contender, and even more formidable in a two-leg series in the playoffs.  The Timbers have proven over the past few weeks that they’re the latter.  Now the question is whether they can return to their prior form in the former respect.

If they do, trophies are a real possibility.

Notes & Observations

  • Even with the win, however, the Timbers are far from the inside track to the Supporters Shield.  Though they have a game in hand on both, Portland sits three points behind New York and two behind Real Salt Lake.  Perhaps even more daunting, the Timbers sit two behind Seattle with the Sounders holding a game on Portland.  The good news, however, is that the Timbers control their own destiny to some extent.  Both RSL and Seattle still have to travel to Portland, meaning the Timbers can to varying extents negate their disadvantage to both of those teams.  I’m not sure Portland has to be perfect from here on out to win the Shield, but pretty darn close to it.
  • The win also puts Portland four points up on L.A. and Colorado for the fourth and fifth spots, which have to play a play-in game to determine who meets the one-seed in the conference semifinals.  Don’t lose track of the Galaxy, however, as their run-in is among the softest in the league with a three-game homestand against Chivas USA, the mercurial Impact of Montreal, and San Jose Earthquakes before finishing with what could be a huge final round fixture at Seattle.  If the Timbers stumble in any of their next three games – a distinct possibility considering none of them are easy by any stretch of the imagination – they could find that the space they earned on Sunday disappears in a hurry.

Timbers Grades

Donovan Ricketts, 5.5 – Really didn’t have that much to do, as the Galaxy only put two legal shots on target, both strikes from distance by Zardes.  Conditions in the first half were brutal for a goalkeeper, though, so he really doesn’t get graded down for his one spill.

Michael Harrington, 6 – The Galaxy didn’t want to run at him, and he didn’t feel much like running at them.  When Portland pushed forward with the fullbacks on Sunday, the normally did so with Jewsbury leading the way and Harrington laying back.  All told, a very steady defensive performance from Mikey.

Futty, 5.5 – A very good defensive game when he didn’t have the ball at his feet shows that his defensive instincts are as sharp as ever coming off his broken foot.  A second game in a row in which he’s misplayed a few balls, however, suggests there may be some rust with he footwork.

Pa Modou Kah, 6.5 – I can’t disagree with Porter’s assessment that this was Kah’s best performance of the season for the Timbers.  With the exception of the body slam of Marcelo that led to his yellow card, Kah was dominant and disciplined on Sunday.

Jack Jewsbury, 7 – With one exception, Jewsbury had one of his best defensive games on Sunday since moving to right back in 2012, largely keeping the wide areas shut down despite L.A.’s notorious effectiveness on the wings.  Provided some of the Timbers’ most effective offensive play in the first half, as well.  Captain Jack has shown why he’s the easy pick at right back down the stretch.

Will Johnson, 6.5 – When the solid flank defending forced the Galaxy to work through the middle, they were repeatedly thwarted by Will and Diego Chara winning tackles and intercepting passes.  Johnson got into the mix a little bit more on Sunday than he had since he returned from his shoulder injury, suggesting he may be close to returning to form.

Diego Chara, 6 – Much the same as Will Johnson, except that Chara gets a slight downgrade for being a little bit uncharacteristically loose with touches and passes.

Rodney Wallace, 6 – Unlucky not to score, as Penedo came up with two good saves on him.  The first, especially, was criminal, as Wallace deserved the goal and Urruti deserved the assist.

Diego Valeri, 5.5 – A little quieter day from Valeri, as he was forced to deal with Juninho and Marcelo all afternoon.  Had a few of his typical moments of brilliance, but nothing came of it on Sunday.

Darlington Nagbe, 5 – Had a little bit of a rough go of things, as he never found positional comfort in an effort to avoid running into the teeth of the Galaxy midfield.  He wasn’t poor by any means, but just wasn’t as effective as we’ve seen him.

Maxi Urruti, 7 – Great goal, but more than that looked much more purposeful in his movement than against Colorado.  The result was better timing – though sometimes still not quite there – on his runs, and more instances of effective pressure on the Galaxy backline.  He justified his coach’s faith in him and dispelled my doubts about whether he is a viable choice in the Starting XI.  If the learning curve continues at this rate, he could be a major contributor in the final weeks.

Ryan Johnson, 5.5 – Came on for Urruti as he began to tire, and put in a lot of the same work Maxi did for the first 73 minutes.  Nothing special, but effective.

Kali Alhassan, 5.5 – As usual, Kalif replace Valeri, who apparently isn’t quite ready to go a full ninety yet, and saw the game out capably.

Preseason Prediction: Timbers 1, Galaxy 1.  Valencia.
Actual Result: Timbers 1, Galaxy 0.  Urruti.

Onward, Rose City!

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