It was inevitable that at some point this season the results would not come as easily as they did in the euphoric early going. On Wednesday night in Sandy, Utah it became official – the Timbers are in a slump.
It isn’t that Caleb Porter’s crew is playing poorly. Indeed, in many respects they’re playing as well as they have all year. But when the final ball isn’t quite right and set piece defending is dirtying sheets, it’s difficult to find results.
It was set piece defending that bit the Timbers early on Wednesday. After Portland failed to full clear a Real Salt Lake corner, Kyle Beckerman did some neat work on the right wing to free himself from Rodney Wallace’s block attempt and cross toward the back post. There, despite the cross being a touch heavy, Alvaro Saborio climbed the ladder and nodded off the far post and in for the opening goal.
After a rough first ten minutes, however, the Timbers slowly seized control over the first half. But even if Portland was cool and controlled in the midfield, time and again they were inches off in the final ball. A ninth minute run into the box by Darlington Nagbe saw his cross to Ryan Johnson for an easy finish barely cut out. On the ensuing corner, the ball bounced deliciously in front of goal, but the Timbers couldn’t find the finishing touch. In the 28th minute, Rodney Wallace used some fancy footwork to earn him space diving centrally on the left side, but his right footed cross was just out of Ryan Johnson’s reach.
In the 40th minute, however, the Timbers should have been on the board. After Andrew Jean-Baptiste streaked up the right wing, he patiently waited until Will Johnson ran into the box with his hand raised. Jean-Baptiste called on him with a perfect pass and Johnson’s strike was goal-bound before Nick Rimando made a tremendous save diving to his left.
Five minutes later it was Diego Valeri doing the work on the right and finding Ryan Johnson at the back post, but the cross was a yard too deep and Johnson’s header deflected off Tony Beltran’s side – and perhaps arm – before striking the outside of the post.
Whereas the chances came in spades in the first half, the second half turned into a nip-tuck affair between two teams that couldn’t unlock one another despite playing some impressive soccer.
Neither team had a clear-cut chance until the 72nd minute, when the Timbers once again should have drawn level. After Kalif Alhassan – who had come on for an injured Will Johnson – played back to Ryan Miller, the left back debutante found Valeri in the box with a nice cross, but Valeri’s free header from eight yards was poor and went well wide, leaving the Argentine sprawled in a prone position.
Despite several good chances, the Timbers just couldn’t find the equalizer. And in the 78th minute, Joao Plata made them pay. After RSL won a second ball, Kyle Beckerman sent a penetrating ball forward to Saborio who teed the ball up perfectly for Plata, where he struck it perfectly inside the post. The Timbers had a half-dozen better chances than Plata’s, but as Caleb Porter discussed postgame, the game is about goals, not chances.
The Timbers would find their goal in second half stoppage time, but ultimately it was too little, too late. After Jose Valencia found Valeri in the box with a nice vertical pass, the newly permanent Timber freed himself from three defenders and unleashed a shot that was again remarkably denied by Rimando. The rebound went right to Valeri’s head, however, and this time he looped it past everybody and into the back of the net.
Despite a frantic last four minutes, the Timbers couldn’t find their equalizer. After brutal back-to-back U.S. Open Cup road fixtures at Dallas and Salt Lake, the Timbers slumped out of the Cup on Wednesday.
It’s not that the Timbers have played poorly at all. On Wednesday, they surely didn’t. It’s simply that they’re not winning results right now. And that alone is enough to put the Timbers in a slump.
Notes & Observations
- Looking back at the game, my notes, and the highlights, the Timbers played pretty well in taking it to a team that doesn’t get it taken to them very often. It’s inaccurate to say, as some have said, that the Timbers weren’t dangerous. Portland had a number of good chances throughout the game on Wednesday that just didn’t fall for one reason or another. Yes, the Timbers are in a slump with only five points in the last five weeks. Yes, the Timbers aren’t filling the nets like they did through June. And yes, the Timbers are making mistakes – especially on set pieces – that they weren’t making two months ago. But they’re really not that far off, which – at this point at least – makes me think this is nothing more than a run of the mill rough patch.
- I really liked Portland’s game plan. As Porter discussed after the game, Portland tucked Darlington Nagbe inside, as he’s naturally inclined to do, and were aggressive in bringing Michael Harrington forward on the right. By using Harrington on the right as an attacking fullback and letting Rodney Wallace float toward the left touchline, the Timbers stretched RSL’s midfield diamond and found spaces both inside and out. This led to extended stretches during which RSL were pinned back in their own end, unable to generate much of anything in the attack.
Donovan Ricketts, 5 – For a game in which he got scored on twice, Ricketts really didn’t have that much to do. Nothing he could do about either concession.
Ryan Miller, 4.5 – Settled in and actually looked pretty comfortable at left back by the second half, but had a little bit of a rough start. Diego Valeri owes him a beer – and probably a point or two in his grade – for not finishing his nice 72nd minute cross.
Pa Modou Kah, 3 – The grade might be harsh, but the first concession was on him. He was marking Saborio, but left him to cover . . . nothing in particular. This is what Caleb Porter was talking about when, after the game, he noted that set piece defending is “a one-v-one battle. It’s that simple. You ‘gotta stay with your guy.” Sometimes it’s hard to believe Jean-Baptiste is the youngster and Kah is the veteran.
Andrew Jean-Baptiste, 7 – RSL folks are understandably really high on Carlos Salcedo. But Andrew Jean-Baptiste is the one of the best young centerbacks the United States has seen in a long time. He has turned himself into a disciplined, physical, and intelligent defender. And then you see him make a play like he did in the 40th minute, when he bombed up the wing and sent a perfect cross to Will Johnson for what would have been a goal but for Rimando’s heroics.
Michael Harrington, 6 – Another nice game from Mikey. His contributions weren’t always around the play, as he spent a lot of time making runs to open space and defending beyond the midfield stripe, but Harrington was very effective at both.
Diego Chara, 6 – Both he and Will Johnson had their hands full with a very good RSL midfield even without Javi Morales. Chara did most of his offensive work from a deeper lying position, and moved the ball very nicely from there.
Will Johnson, 5.5 – Really rough night for Will, and by no fault of his own. Picked up a shoulder knock that eventually led to his substitution. Moreover, he was denied a sure goal by his buddy and former teammate, Nick Rimando.
Rodney Wallace, 5.5 – Not Wallace’s most dangerous night, but he put in a pretty good shift playing pretty tight to the touchline. Maintained spacing well and generally did a good job of getting the ball back into a good spot.
Diego Valeri, 6 – For much of the match, he was tremendous, breaking down RSL defenders left and right. But should have pulled the Timbers level in the 72nd, even if he did get one back late.
Darlington Nagbe, 5 – This was one of those games in which Nagbe only popped up in spots. Had his most success early on, when RSL repeatedly lost him in the midfield. When he did get on the ball in a dangerous spot, though, Darlington was a little slow in his decision-making.
Ryan Johnson, 6 – The Timbers game plan called for him to work back into the midfield to take advantage of the open space created by Harrington coming forward, and then make late runs into the box. He made several of those good late runs in the first half, only to have his teammates just miss him or RSL nervously clear.
Kalif Alhassan, 5 – Sort of a strange spot for Kalif to come on in, as it was forced by Will Johnson coming off. Kalif didn’t make a huge impact, but he was perhaps unlucky not to get the secondary assist when Valeri missed his header.
Jose Valencia, 5.5 – Great ball forward to Valeri in the box that led to the goal. Valencia showed once again that he’s starting to figure out what Caleb Porter likes from his forwards.
Alvas Powell, INC. – Had a fair amount of time, but really didn’t make a huge impact.
Onward, Rose City!
 Even if it did strike Beltran’s arm, you can’t blame Mark Geiger or his assistants for not calling for a penalty. From the officials’ vantage point, which was appropriate, there was no way they could see the alleged infraction. Frustrating as this is, keep in mind the Timbers benefited greatly from a similar situation on Jose Valencia’s goal in Vancouver.
 As if there was ever any doubt.