Match Report: Timbers Flip Script on Sounders

Think back to August 25, 2013.  The Portland Timbers, in the midst of a rough stretch of play, headed to Seattle without Diego Chara, Will Johnson, and Ben Zemanski – their entire starting central midfield and first off the bench – for a huge showdown with the Seattle Sounders.  Portland played well for stretches of that game, were frustrated by repeated fouls by the Seattle central midfield, and created a handful of good chances, but ultimately couldn’t find the goal Seattle did in a 1-0 loss.

The narrative was very much the same on Sunday, except the Timbers were the team that found the goal and Seattle the side left smarting at chances gone awry and perceived slights by the referees.

And, just as six weeks ago, people were wondering whether the Sounders could be stopped on their march to the Supporters Shield, the three points on Sunday put Portland into a position to make a strong bid for the regular season title with two more wins.

The Sounders opened the chances in the 13th minute when a Mauro Rosales free kick from the left wing found Lamar Neagle in the center of the box, but his header to the back post was saved by Donovan Ricketts with a small assist from the woodwork.

Seattle came even closer on the ensuing corner.  After the Timbers failed to clear the initial ball, Adam Moffat tried to curl a ball to the back post where Clint Dempsey stepped in front and got head to Moffat’s shot, but his nod was turned away by the underside of the bar and cleared by Pa Modou Kah.

But just as they did a week ago, the Timbers quickly recovered from a little bit of a nervous start, and began to put their foot on the game.  Spurred by plenty of possession that largely kept Seattle pinned in their end, Darlington Nagbe created Portland’s first good chance in the 39th minute after finding space on the right side.  Nagbe unleashed one of his signature cracks from range that appeared right at Marcus Hahnemann, but swerved at the last moment forcing a palmed save that Seattle had to nervously clear.

A minute later, Nagbe was on the run again.  After some brilliant play from Kalif Alhassan and Maxi Urruti set Nagbe on the break, he rode several Osvaldo Alonso challenges from behind before Hahnemann’s disturbed Nagbe enough to get the ball caught up in his spokes and allow Alonso to clear for a corner.

The Timbers found their deserved goal in the 45th minute.  After a Jack Jewsbury entry ball forced some indecision by Hahnemann and was meekly cleared by DeAndre Yedlin, Kalif Alhassan gathered 15 yards from goal and drove it back inside Hahnemann’s abandoned near post.

The goal gave the Timbers a huge lift going into halftime, and Portland rode that wave coming out of the locker room searching for a second goal.

In the 48th minute, Jose Valencia made a run down Seattle’s left side and played a looping combination with Urruti to spring the Colombian into the box, but Valencia’s effort from a tight angle sailed just over the bar.

For a moment in the 57th minute, it looked like Will Johnson might just deliver the knockout blow.  After Diego Chara recovered a sloppy Sounders pass in midfield, he played to Nagbe 25 yards out who sprung Johnson through on goal with a clever backheel.  Johnson’s left-footed strike from the top of the box, however, sailed high and wide.

The Sounders’ first real chance of the half skirted by in the 62nd minute, as Alex Caskey’s low corner nearly found a diving Jhon Kennedy Hurtado at the near post, but ultimately skipped harmlessly across the face of goal.  On the whole, however, the Sounders were finding themselves out of questions to ask of the Portland defense in an increasingly physical, disjointed game.

The physicality got the best of Alonso in the 72nd minute.  After Ozzie took down Will Johnson with a hard sliding tackle just after the referee had blown the play dead for a Hurtado yellow card, Johnson got in Alonso’s face in protest of the challenge.  Alonso responded by throwing an elbow at Johnson’s face, resulting in a clear red card for the Cuban.  The Sounders confronted the referee and his assistant en masse, including Mauro Rosales coming off the bench to grab the assistant referee, but the call stood – as it unquestionably should have – and the Sounders went down a man.

Despite the man advantage, the Timbers had a hard time finishing the Sounders off. Ricketts came up big again in the 80th minute when Neagle hit a low, hard shot through the Timbers defense, but Ricketts reacted just in time to palm it clear.

In the 82nd minute, Maxi Urruti looked to have a chance to put the game away when he got loose on the right, but he dragged his finish across the face of goal with no supporting Timber to tap it in.

The real drama was saved for stoppage time, however.  After a hopeful Moffat entry ball was redirected to a wide-open Steve Zakuani in the box, the former Zip played[1] a seemingly goalbound shot that Pa Modou Kah deflected up and off the crossbar.  The rebound fell to Andy Rose at the back post, but his gentle finish was easily cleared away by Jack Jewsbury to preserve the scoreline.

Just as Seattle was after a less-than-dominant win in August, the Timbers come away from Sunday very confident following their third consecutive 1-0 home win over playoff opposition.  After a spring and summer of flashy football, Caleb Porter has transformed his Timbers team from the darlings of tactical aficionados to a group of grinders who have clawed their way to the top of the Western Conference table.

And if their recent form holds, the Timbers look poised to make a strong bid for the Supporters Shield and a long run in the playoffs.

Timbers Grades

Donovan Ricketts, 7 – It’s no coincidence that Portland gets its best results when Ricketts is playing well.  His dominance over the last several weeks has coincided with the Timbers taking ten points out of twelve, including three shutouts.

Michael Harrington, 6.5 – He’s progressed from shaky to start the season, to solid in the middle, to really solid in the late stages.  There’s nothing extraordinary about what Michael does, but he’s becoming one of the better defensive left backs in the league.

Pa Modou Kah, 6.5 – The Timbers are still being exposed too much on set pieces, and the center backs have to take some responsibility for that, but when a team hasn’t conceded in three of its last four games, more is going right than wrong on the defensive end.

Futty, 6 – See Kah’s explanation, except Kah gets a little bump for his game-saving block of Zakuani.

Jack Jewsbury, 7 – Didn’t venture forward much on Sunday, but his crosses were very dangerous, including the ball that eventually found Alhassan’s foot for the winner.  Also enjoys the spoils of being part of a very good defensive performance that really limited Seattle’s chances in the run of play.

Will Johnson, 7 – He and Diego Chara are primarily responsible for keeping Seattle very quiet from the run of play.  The Timbers’ central midfield dominated Seattle’s, frustrating Alonso and keeping the Sounders from building any spells of sustained pressure.

Diego Chara, 7 – Yes, Chara probably should have gone in the book for one of his five fouls against Seattle, but it was a little bizarre for Sigi Schmid to make a meal of this postgame considering his team’s strategy against Darlington Nagbe and Alonso’s escapism six weeks ago.

Kalif Alhassan, 8 – Kalif was the story postgame, and rightfully so.  Not only was his goal of the type he doesn’t score last year, but his comprehensive performance on both sides of the ball is a sign of significant development.  We’ve had “Kalif is really coming along” moments in the past, only to be disappointed, but his development in the non-jazz hands aspects of the game make this feel different.  With Diego Valeri reported to potentially miss the last two games of the regular season, Kalif may have more opportunities to show his worth.

Darlington Nagbe, 8 – A co-Man of the Match with Alhassan, Nagbe was tremendous in running at – and being fouled by – the Sounders defense all day.  Schmid clearly feels his midfield and defense can’t handle Nagbe, as their strategy is simply to hack him to the ground.

Jose Valencia, 4.5 – Had some opportunities to break players down one-on-one, and lost more than he won.  When Valencia looked to Jewsbury in support, he typically found more space for himself and created more problems for the Sounders.  Still, it’s clear Valencia is more comfortable up top than on the wing.  It will be interesting to see how the Timbers handle the Urruti-Valencia competition in the next few years.

Maxi Urruti, 5 – Floated in and out of the game more than I’m sure Porter would like.  Had his usual work rate, but tends to disappear in the offense for extended periods.  With a reportedly injured hamstring, we may see Ryan Johnson back in the lineup for the time being.

Ben Zemanski, 5.5 – Deployed in an atypical role as a Timber on the right side of midfield, Zemanski did a nice job of managing the last quarter of the game.

Frederic Piquionne, 5 – Made his return from injury in a long six-minute spell at the end.  Clearly had some moments where he wanted to push for a second goal, but that wasn’t the direction the team was going at the time.

Sal Zizzo, INC.

Preseason Prediction: Timbers 2, Sounders 0.  Valeri, Ryan Johnson.
Actual Result: Timbers 1, Sounders 0.  Alhassan.

Onward, Rose City!

[1] Or maybe he worked the shot.  I can’t remember.

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