Since the regular season began, Caleb Porter has preached keeping the lows high and the highs low. This habit is designed to allow the Timbers to work through inevitable rough patches in games and throughout the course of the season.
Nobody would have blamed Portland on Saturday for getting down after a hard luck first twenty-five minutes, in which David Horst went down with a serious-looking knee injury and Diego Valeri was forced off after an elbow to the face left him dazed and bloodied.
And for a few minutes after Valeri went down, it looked like the Timbers might just be shell-shocked. In the 31st minute, Houston should have gone ahead, as Andrew Driver’s cross found its way through the first level of the Timbers defense to Cam Weaver at the far post, but Weaver’s open net tap-in sailed high.
From there, however, the Timbers slowly built back onto their front foot. While the quality chances weren’t ready to come, the Timbers built a feeling heading into halftime that they could overcome the loss of Valeri and Horst.
It didn’t take long after halftime for that belief to translate into chances. In the 49th minute, some great interplay between Rodney Wallace and Darlington Nagbe put the former Zip in some space in front of goal. Nagbe, hardly the ambi-footer, tried to clip the ball with the outside of his right foot, sending what would have been an otherwise routine finish wide of the near post.
Two minutes later, Mikael Silvestre sent a beautiful ball forward from central defense to Nagbe, who played Kalif Alhassan onto the right wing. Alhassan sent a dangerous ball across the box to Ryan Johnson waiting at the back post, only for Bobby Boswell to clear it awkwardly at the last moment.
There would be no clearance of Diego Chara’s cross in the 55th minute, however. After the Timbers patiently passed the ball around the back, Jack Jewsbury finally found space and sent the ball forward to Chara. Chara and Nagbe played a quick combination that set the Colombian into space on the right wing. After Diego – a natural winger – broke free, he sent a picture perfect cross to Ryan Johnson at the mouth of goal, where his finishing touch was bobbled by Tally Hall and eventually nestled into the bottom corner of the goal. The goal registered the Timbers’ first lead of 2013.
That lead almost doubled four minutes later when Ryan Johnson found Rodney Wallace twenty-five yards from goal. Wallace, who is enjoying a breakout 2013 under Porter, hit a terrific shot that beat Tally Hall, only to be denied cruelly by the underside of the bar and the chalk of the goal line.
Wallace was at it again ten minutes later, as a handled Kalif Alhassan cross still found its way to him through on goal, but his right-footed effort was straight at Hall.
The Timbers beat Hall four minutes later, in the 72ndminute, when Chara made a magnificent run through the center of the midfield and found Ryan Johnson on the left wing. Johnson’s cross beat the Dynamo keeper, but sailed just beyond a meekly offering Nagbe.
There was nothing meek about Nagbe a minute later, however, when he won the ball back in the defensive end, played clever combinations with Wallace and Alhassan, dissected the Dynamo midfield, and set Ryan Johnson through on goal. Johnson doesn’t often miss when he truly gets free, and this was no exception, as he smashed a hard shot past Hall and into the net for his brace.
From there, the Dyanmo had the look of a team utterly broken on the road by a better-prepared opponent. The Timbers put together extended spells where they strung passes through the midfield under, at best, modest pressure.
There were even a couple moments where the Timbers looked like they might add a third for good measure. In the 88th minute Frederic Piquionne showed some surprising speed up the right touchline, and sent a cross into Nagbe, only to have it cut out by Boswell.
But for the hand of Hall, however, the Timbers would have made it three near the final whistle, when Nagbe took a pass from Alhassan and hit it hard toward the far post, but Hall got just enough of a finger on it to send it wide.
The win marks the first true high point of the season, and comes at a very important time. Facing a home-and-home with San Jose and a road fixture at Kansas City to end the month, if the Timbers hadn’t taken maximum points from Houston they would have been heading into a difficult stretch with significant questions, and not very many points, hanging over their heads.
As it stands, though, the Timbers await San Jose’s Sunday arrival with greater confidence. While Porter had been grooming his team to grind through stretches like the next three weeks, a little bit of added swagger can certainly go a long way.
- After the match, both Porter and the players in the locker room practiced the coach’s preaching of restraint after results. Porter held what may have been the most sober press conference of the young season. While noting that “this was a big step in the right direction; this was that breakthrough I’ve been looking for,” Porter’s demeanor throughout was fairly unassuming. Will Johnson’s comments similarly reflected this philosophy in the postgame locker room, as he noted, “I don’t know if there was a whole lot of pent up frustration from not winning.” While everybody seemed to be repeating the line that they would “enjoy” the victory, I was impressed with the unanimity with which they kept it in perspective. After a game that deserved superlatives, there were few coming from the coaches or players.
- One of the biggest differences in the Timbers’ performance was the play of Diego Chara. After having made uncharacteristically significant mistakes over the past two weeks, Chara was nearly flawless on Saturday night. As to the difference in Chara’s play, Porter opined it was a function of “the overall group gaining an understanding, and chemistry with each other.” While increased familiarity is certainly a part of the improvement, Chara’s effectiveness has been strongly related to where he slots in tactically. In the first half against Seattle, and for much of the match against Colorado, Chara spent the majority of his time out wide on the right side. He was noticeably uncomfortable in both games, which came through not only in aesthetics, but also on the scoresheet. On Saturday, Diego was back in the central midfield with Will Johnson. While Chara occasionally strayed wide, including in the lead up to his magnificent cross on the first goal, he consistently made his home base in and around the center circle. The result was near perfection, as he completed 49 of 51 passes, logged an assist, and made several good runs through Houston’s midfield.
- I still expect the next few months of this season to be a little bit of a tough go, but Saturday night showed the Timbers can put it all together at once, even under less than ideal circumstances. If the Timbers can put together performances like that consistently sooner rather than later, there won’t be five teams in the West that will finish above them on the table. That’s a big ask, and probably still an unreasonable one, but, I should admit, I didn’t expect to see a performance like Saturday until we were well into summer.
Donovan Ricketts, 6 – Had a couple of his obligatory awkward moments, but they were pretty minor on Saturday. Otherwise Donovan was confident, and made a good save on a Brad Davis first half shot. Had the opportunity to count the rubber pellets in the turf some in the second half.
Jack Jewsbury, 7 – This shouldn’t have been altogether surprising, as he was solid at the position last year, but Jack was very solid at right back on Saturday. He did it in typical Jewsbury fashion, too. Conservatively, and more than competently.
David Horst, 5 – Feel awful for Horst, as it looked like a serious right knee injury from the press box. Once in a while those will turn out to be not as bad as it looked, but live and on the replay it had cruciate ligament tear written all over it.
Mikael Silvestre, 7 – A really nice game from Silvestre. He had one little mistake when a ball got through his legs, but otherwise won a good number of balls in the air and distributed very nicely from the back.
Michael Harrington, 6 – Harrington’s best defensive game, as he shut down his flank a number of times. Still limited by his lack of left foot getting forward, but considering the other offensive firepower, that wasn’t a huge problem on Saturday.
Diego Chara, 8.5 – This was discussed in greater detail above, but Diego was nearly perfect. His cross to Ryan Johnson for the first score was one of the best I’ve seen from a Timber.
Will Johnson, 6.5 – While Chara was more aggressive getting forward on Saturday, Johnson very effectively played the defensive yin to Diego’s yang.
Diego Valeri, 5 – Looked as good as anybody in the relatively tame first 28 minutes, but was then robbed of the chance to really work his way into the game. Hopefully he’ll be back for next week’s match against San Jose, but, considering how good the Timbers were in the first half, it’s not the end of the world if he’s held out.
Rodney Wallace, 8 – One of the best performances we’ve seen from Rodney in a Timbers uniform. Was really unlucky not to get his name on the scoresheet, but made his presence felt in the midfield nonetheless.
Darlington Nagbe, 6 – If he had a left foot and some confidence, Darlington would be unstoppable. Unfortunately he has neither, so you sort of have to take the good with the frustrating. There was a healthy dose of both on Saturday.
Ryan Johnson, 7.5 – Goals are nice. Really nice. But Johnson made an impact in other ways, including having a couple crosses just narrowly miss their likely goal-scoring marks.
Kalif Alhassan, 7 – Great stuff from Kalif in relief of Valeri. Although nominally slated on the right, Kalif did a good job of floating inside to provide a ready and willing combination partner in the central midfield. His teammates availed themselves of his services regularly, including in the build up to both goals. Looking back on the goals that have occurred while Kalif has been on the field, it’s remarkable how many of them he had a hand in setting up.
Andrew Jean-Baptiste, 5.5 – Put his team in a tough spot once by getting beat on the byline, but the defense was more than capable of cleaning up that mini-mess. Still has a tendency to thump in distribution a little more than I’m sure Porter would like, but overall very competent. Considering Horst’s injury seems likely to be long term, he may be the staring center back for the foreseeable future.
Frederic Piquionne, 6 – A nice brief spell for Piquionne, even if he may have been a little too ambitious at times. I had no idea he could move like he did when he broke down the right sideline.
Preseason Prediction: Dynamo 2, Timbers 0.
Actual Result: Timbers 2, Dynamo 0. Johnson (x2). Oops.
Onward, Rose City!