Sporting Kansas City took the field on Saturday looking to send a message coming off a frustrating loss and showcase their new argyle kits. What they didn’t expect, however, was that the Portland Timbers would put on a show of their own. With Kansas City having not conceded at home this year, the Portland Timbers marched into Sporting Park and sullied the Wizards’ sheet over, and over, and over. The result netted a thrilling three points and a royal’s share of legitimacy.
It was never going to be a smooth ride, however, which became readily apparent just 40 seconds in, when Chance Myers ran onto the end of a Matt Besler long throw and nodded inside the near post for the stunning opening goal.
Chief among the Timbers’ many qualities, however, are picking themselves up off the mat. And they near did just that less than four minutes later when Rodney Wallace played Diego Valeri through on the left side. Jimmy Nielsen was quick off his line, however, and between he and Paulo Nagamura, Kansas City were able to deflect Valeri’s shot just enough to bloop it off the crossbar, eventually to be cleared by Aurelien Collin.
The Timbers kept pressing, however, and nearly found the equalizer in the 24th minute when Darlington Nagbe played Wallace through on the left side. Nielsen could only parry Wallace’s tremendous strike from 25 yards out, however, and on the ensuring corner Valeri found Ryan Johnson elevating over the defense in the center of the box to put things back on level terms.
It wouldn’t last long, however, as Kansas City came right back on a clever set piece play in the 29th minute to go back ahead. With every observant pair of eyes expecting Graham Zusi to swing his free kick into the box, the American international played it short to Benny Feilhaber, who chipped to Collin. The big center back found Myers – who had never scored an MLS goal coming in – at the near post, where he easily tapped home.
If the stout Kansas City defense has a vulnerability, however, it is on the break. With a penchant for being aggressive with their fullbacks, Kansas City was beaten twice on the break last week at the Home Depot Center, and in the 33rd minute the Timbers would make it thrice in seven days. After the Johnsons combined to poke the ball away from Collin in Kansas City’s half, Wallace played the ball forward for Diego Valeri who sent Ryan Johnson through the very high Sporting defense. Johnson beelined for the box, pulled Nielsen off his line, then played back to Darlington Nagbe at the face of goal, who slammed on the brakes to tap into the open net.
After perhaps the most entertaining half of soccer in Timbers’ MLS history, however, the game still hung in the balance. It’s one thing to look better on the road and earn draws. It’s another altogether to go into a place like Kansas City and come away with three points.
Rodney Wallace would help the Timbers do just that in the 58th minute. After C.J. Sapong gave away a bad ball to Diego Chara, the original designated player ran into space and found Wallace running behind Myers. As Rod lined up his shot, Myers took him down from behind. Not even that could foil the Timbers’ breakout star, as on his way down he slotted past Nielsen and into the net.
The Wizards were far from finished, however. In the 73rd minute Matt Besler’s cross was deflected by Michael Harrington but still squirreled in front of goal. Collin’s finish, however, spun harmlessly in the box and Donovan Ricketts collected.
Portland would have to weather a frantic final fifteen minutes, however, that saw Collin, Myers, and Jacob Peterson just miss promising chances to bring Kansas City back into the game.
Sporting’s last gasp, however, would require some of Ricketts’ heroics. In the second minute of stoppage time Seth Sinovic sent a cross from well outside the box to the top of the six, where Collin headed brilliantly to the near post, but a diving Ricketts steered it away.
Saturday’s match was a major checkpoint for the Timbers along their path to legitimacy. Not only are Sporting KC a serious contender and dominant at home, but they’re also the team whose style most resembles Portland’s fledgling identity. Rather than stand by while Sporting imposed their will and christened their new kits, the Timbers took the game to them. And ultimately, they stole the show.
Notes & Observations
- The Timbers’ 1.75 goals per game lead MLS, adding to the long list of the Timbers’ 2013 accomplishments that were utterly inconceivable a year ago. If you’re having a hard time grasping what you just read, here’s another way of putting it. Through nine games, the Timbers have the most potent offense in MLS. If you’re feeling lightheaded, breathing into a paper bag helps.
- Chance Myers grabbed headlines with his goals, but the Timbers brutalized him defensively. All three of Portland’s goals were directly or indirectly a result of Portland exploiting Sporting down their right flank – you know, which is where Myers is nominally slated to play.
- The win, and the manner of the win, will likely force opponents to change their tactics to accommodate Portland’s style of play. This has been one of the more positive developments of 2013 for the Timbers – teams are coming in having to go away from their identity to try to compete with Portland. On Saturday Sporting didn’t change their identity, and as a result were punished when the Timbers over and over found space in behind the Wizards’ defense.
- The past four games are likely the best four-game stretch in Timbers’ MLS history. With home matches against Houston and San Jose, and away days in San Jose and Kansas City, 5 or 6 points out of the 12 would have been a respectable result. Instead, the Timbers took 10, and as a result sit alone in 3rd in the Western Conference.
- I continue to be impressed with the tweaks Caleb Porter makes in the Timbers’ tactics on a weekly basis. On Saturday, the Timbers shifted their midfield formation to the left to exploit Myers’s penchant for being caught upfield to tremendous success. With Ryan Johnson and Rodney Wallace often floating near the left touchline, Diego Valeri found space to pull into the center-left channel and Darlington Nagbe moved more central. With Myers often plucking dandelions near midfield, this created a numbers advantage for Portland going forward that they exploited frequently in the first half.
Donovan Ricketts, 7.5 – Another really good performance from Ricketts, as it was his presence in the box, as much as anything, that let the 3-2 result stand up.
Michael Harrington, 6 – Moved to the right against his former team, and really got after it early, being aggressive offensively and sending in a few rough challenges on his former teammates. Most of the action was on the other side of the field, however, limiting Michael’s ceiling a little bit. Nonetheless, certainly a satisfying homecoming for Harrington.
Mikael Silvestre, 6 – Generally, a tremendous outing from Mikael. Great tackling, good control in the air, and good distribution from the Timbers’ backline centerpiece. Along with a number of his colleagues, however, Mikael bears a modest portion of responsibility for some passive defending on the first concession.
Futty, 3.5 – I feel a little bit guilty giving Futty a poor grade in light of the fact that it was his 30th birthday and he went down with a serious-looking knee injury, but it was my buddy’s cat’s namesake that lost his mark on Myers on the second concession and was in the gaggle of gagged defenders on the first. It was otherwise a solid performance, but mistakes often define defenders. Here’s hoping his knee injury isn’t as bad as it looked.
Jack Jewsbury, 5.5 – Classic Jack. Solid and unspectacular. The move to the left was interesting, and worked out inoffensively.
Diego Chara, 7 – Checked Benny Feilhaber out of the game, and then made the play on the go-ahead goal. Was a little bit looser in distribution than he normally is, but that probably has more to do with KC’s pressure than anything else.
Will Johnson, 6 – One of Will’s subtler performances, but still very effective. Johnson was the Timbers’ most active player in winning the ball back in midfield, including on the play that would go on to spark the second goal.
Darlington Nagbe, 7 – He’s still just sort of frustrating, but on Saturday Nagbe’s measurables matched his influence. While he was rewarded for running out the play on his goal, his best moment came when he played a beautiful through ball to Wallace on the shot that set up the corner for the opening goal.
Diego Valeri, 7 – A little unlucky in the 5th minute to not find the net, but Valeri was instrumental in both the first and second goals. It was his ball that sprung Ryan Johnson on the second goal, for which he probably deserved a secondary assist.
Rodney Wallace, 8.5 – Tremendous from Rodney, once again. If he keeps this form up, trading Dax McCarty for him will look like a no-brainer.
Ryan Johnson, 8 – He’s not the tallest guy or the best jumper, but he’s surprisingly good in the air. He’s not the fastest striker, but he is lethal on the counter. He’s not the burliest forward, but he’s a very good holdup man. There isn’t one thing that makes Ryan Johnson great. He just is.
Ben Zemanski, 6 – Caleb Porter was in part talking about Zemanski when he noted the substitutes did a better job of slowing the game down than they did last week against San Jose. Came in and put in a nice shift on the right wing.
Andrew Jean-Baptiste, 5.5 – Came in at a very difficult time, just as Kansas City were getting ready to bombard the Timbers’ defense. He handled the task competently, however, again showing that he is capable of manning the backline until reinforcements arrive.
Froderic Piquionne, 6.5 – Came on and did exactly what Caleb Porter would have wanted, chasing down long clearances and holding the ball up. Showed his quality by nearly scoring a wonder goal that would have put things away. Oh, and I love Froderic.
Preseason Prediction: SKC 2, Timbers 1. Nagbe.
Actual Result: Timbers 3, SKC 2. Johnson, Nagbe, Wallace.
Onward, Rose City!
 There’s a good chance this was a lucky break for Kansas City, as Myers’s tackle was clearly worthy of a penalty and a straight red card for denial of a clear goal-scoring opportunity. Had Wallace not finished, the Timbers would have likely converted the penalty and Sporting would have had to proceed with ten men.
 In my preseason predictions, I projected the Timbers would net one point. So there’s that.
 Which, cruelly, came on his best play of the day.