I wish the title for this match report could be different. But let’s be honest for a moment, is there really any other story coming out of the Timbers’ match against D.C. United on Saturday? No.
As they’ve shown more than once in this most recent stretch of play, the Timbers started both halves slowly before building confidence as play went along. While DCU had the better of possession in the opening stages, they couldn’t muster anything serious in the way of chances. Other than Lionard Pajoy embarrassing himself in front of goal a number of times, that is.
Portland’s first serious chance came in the eighteenth minute when Sal Zizzo found Bright Dike in behind a sleepy United defense on a throw, but Dike pulled his shot from the right well wide.
D.C. nearly put one in on themselves in the twenty-eighth minute when a Zizzo cross was forcefully redirected toward goal by Brandon McDonald, but Bill Hamid kept a red-faced own goal out.
Dike found himself in behind DCU again in the forty-first minute, but pulled his left footed shot wide. The closest call of the half was reserved for Darlington Nagbe, however, as his forty-fifth minute effort from the left corner of the box forced Hamid to palm the ball into the air. The ball looped over the young keeper’s head toward goal, but Hamid was able to recover and secure the save.
United reasserted themselves after halftime, but couldn’t seriously threaten Joe Bendik and the Timbers defense. That is, until the referee and his assistant intervened.
After the Timbers fell asleep a little bit on a throw, Perry Kitchen collected the ball on the right wing and looked to send a ball into the box. David Horst looked to close Kitchen out, but as Kitchen unleashed his ball into the box, Horst seemingly failed to deflect it. The trouble was cleared by Futty and Nick DeLeon unleashed a hopeless shot well high and wide.
And that’s how it should have ended. But then the referee, several seconds after the alleged incident, caught a glimpse of his assistant’s flag in the corner as the players from both teams started to walk off for a goal kick.
The linesman signaled for handball on David Horst. Even with the facts viewed in the light most favorable to the referee, the ball grazed Horst’s sleeve or arm, but not enough to materially affect the flight of the cross. Nonetheless, the referee signaled for a penalty for, again viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the referee, the slightest handball you or I could possibly imagine. Chris Pontius buried the spot kick, and DCU appeared to be off to the races.
So the match would stay until the seventy-ninth minute, however, when Steven Smith intercepted the ball in the attacking half on the left wing, and played into the center for Nagbe. Nagbe fed Smith through, and the most promising Scot put the ball into the box. For a moment it appeared to be cut out by Andy Najar, but Dike corralled it near the byline and fired the ball into the top of the net from a tight angle.
With the equalizer in hand, the Timbers went in search for the winner. With United virtually silent offensively since the referee’s gift, Jack Jewsbury lined up a corner in the eighty-seventh. After finding Futty beyond the far post, the Gambian nodded the ball down toward Franck Songo’o at the mouth of the goal. Songo’o got foot to Futty’s header, but sailed his redirection well high.
In an unmistakable theme over the last month, the Timbers put on a decent performance, but came away with an unsatisfying result. Unfortunately for the Timbers, however, “looks better than their results suggest” isn’t a Cascadia Cup tiebreaker.
- So it was an awful, awful call. Yes, Horst’s arm was up. Yes, it can plausibly be argued that the ball grazed the underside or back of his arm. But under no circumstances is a graze of an arm that doesn’t materially affect the flight of the ball a penalty. Ever. Period. Full stop.
- September was the first month this year in which the Timbers didn’t win a game. Whoa.
This match got me thinking a little bit, though. Controlling for the uncontrollable, how does this Timbers team compare to 2011? At this point last year, the Timbers were sitting on 40 points, clinging to the slightest of playoff hopes. So the easy answer is “10 points worse.”
And there’s a good argument to be made that the Timbers are substantially worse than last year. The best argument looks to goal differential, where the Timbers’ minus-23 are 15 goals worse than the already uninspiring minus-8 from 2011. Between the point total and goal differential, the initial reaction is that this Timbers team is substantially worse than 2011.
I think that overstates the difference, however. The goal differential number is skewed by the apocalyptic seven-game stretch from the last day of June through July where the Timbers were a putrid minus-14. There’s no question; that period was the worst in Timbers MLS history.
The point differential also exaggerates the difference a bit, too. Two significant factors are at play, here. The first is awful luck. You know, no penalties, yada, yada, yada. It’s not hard to look through the schedule and reasonably justify the notion that bad luck with referees has cost the Timbers between four and six points.
Let’s try this: The penalty given to United, Diego’s penalty refused against Seattle, and Fucito’s penalty refused against Toronto. There, I found six points in the last six weeks. Admittedly, this is an inexact science, as there’s no way of knowing if the Timbers would have come away with wins in all three of those games had the referees made appropriate calls in those spots. But Merritt’s point that things haven’t evened out for Portland this year is undeniable. In fact, it hasn’t evened out in a big way.
The second is the schedule. Being in the Western Conference, the Timbers’ schedule has been rougher in 2012 than the balanced schedule last year. Portland has 13 points in 10 games against the Eastern Conference and 17 points in 21 games against the West. That’s 1.3 points per game against the East, and .81 points per game against the West. Yikes.
Plug those numbers into a balanced schedule and the Timbers would finish with approximately 39 points for the season. And that’s with all the bad luck. That, again, isn’t an exact science – the small sample size of games against the East can skew things a bit, especially when you break things down to home and away. But it’s also noteworthy that the Timbers had to go on the road to play three of the bottom four teams in the East. That’s a lot of potential home points the Timbers didn’t have the opportunity to collect. This is the unreported story of 2012.
So, back to our original question – controlling for bad luck and a bad schedule, how does this Timbers team compare with 2011? Because of the scientific inexactitude discussed above, I still think this team is worse, but not much worse. There is a plausible argument based on the above that if the schedule and referees were balanced, the Timbers would be in about the same spot as 2011. Maybe even a little bit better. Here is what we do know – take a mediocre team, add a good portion of bad luck, and pile on a bad schedule, and you come away with one very painful year.
Joe Bendik, 5.5 – Really didn’t have much to do. Like, almost nothing at all.
Steven Smith, 6 – Got a lot of MOTM love from the Timbers’ press corps, and not for nothing. But remember, it was Smith that fell asleep on the throw that allowed Kitchen to get free on the fateful cross.
David Horst, 7 – Here is my MOTM. Horst has a tendency to be a little inconsistent, but Saturday was one of his beast mode matches. Absolutely dominant in the center. His grade would be a little higher yet if he would jump without flailing his arms around.
Hanyer Mosquera, INC. – Really inopportune time to tweak a hamstring.
Kosuke Kimura, 4 – DCU was going straight at him early, and he conceded a fair few half chances. He locked things down a little more as the match went along, however, to pull his grade back to respectability.
Rodney Wallace, 4 – After a solid debut week standing in for Diego Chara, Rod struggled a little bit to combine with Darlington Nagbe. Very little of what Rod does on the field is seamless, but Saturday was even a little more herky-jerky than usual.
Jack Jewsbury, 5.5 – The grade isn’t fabulous, but Jack has quietly put in a great shift since moving back to holding midfield. He’s also done very well in reasserting himself as the unquestioned leader of this team.
Darlington Nagbe, 5.5 – Got a couple promising shots off, but was out of sync when combining with Wallace on the left. Darlington has fallen a little quiet in the past couple weeks, but I still like sticking him up top where he can work back into the midfield and transition into the attack with his brilliance on the ball.
Franck Songo’o, 6.5 – Played much of the match as a second striker to Dike and looked fantastic there. Franck is the Timbers’ most versatile player right now, which makes him a virtual lock to be carried over into 2013.
Sal Zizzo, 6 – I don’t know what it is about Sal and Bright Dike, but the two of them are working together brilliantly. Another good shift on the right for Zizzo increasingly marginalizes Kalif Alhassan.
Bright Dike, 6 – He misses too many opportunities, but from that angle, it’s hard to deny his goal was fabulous. Obviously, Dike’s physicality and work ethic are his bread and butter, but the thing that may make him a legitimate starting MLS striker is his improving left foot. With his ability to create space, if he can develop the capacity to get a shot off with either foot he could be a serious, serious number nine.
Futty, 5 – Decent game coming on in relief for Futty. Wasn’t nearly as dominant as Horst, but he was plenty competent.
Danny Mwanga, 6 – Mwanga came on as a third striker late, and had a couple nice moments up top on the right side.
Brent Richards, INC. – Barely got on the field before the referee blew the final whistle.
Preseason Prediction: Timbers 2, United 0. Boyd, Alexander.
Actual Result: Timbers 1, United 1. Dike, Pontius.
Onward, Rose City!
 Nine, to be exact.