Match Report: Timbers Stick a Fork in the Fish

One team was focused on Thursday night.  The other was not.  One team was determined on Thursday night.  The other was not.  One team was desperate for victory on Thursday night.  The other was not.

The Portland Timbers are into the Western Conference Finals.  And they got there in dominant fashion.

From the opening whistle on Thursday, the Timbers were the far better team.  Portland nearly opened with a bang, just missing finding the back of the net in the third minute.  After Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, and Ryan Johnson worked the ball through an entranced Sounders midfield, Valeri streaked into the box and found Wallace behind the defense on the left side, but Rodney was a half-step late to the ball and just barely couldn’t get his foot around enough to steer it on frame.

Seven minutes later, Wallace found a piece of readily available space between the Sounders’ midfield and backline and fired at Michael Gspurning, but the Swiss goalkeeper saved somewhere south of confidently.

Gspurning was beaten just five minutes later, but the Timbers still couldn’t find the net.  After Jack Jewsbury collected a charitable giveaway from Marc Burch, Diego Chara started a combination between Ryan Johnson and Nagbe before the Darlington’s shot from 20 yards screamed just wide of the far post.

All that was missing for Portland was a little luck.  That would come in the 27th minute.  After Jack Jewsbury way-too-easily gathered a throw in, he looked to breeze by Djimi Traore by chipping him with a clever touch.  Beaten, Traore reached out and handled the ball in the box for a penalty that Will Johnson easily slotted past the hopeless Gspurning.

After an absolutely incoherent opening half hour, the Sounders looked momentarily like they might start to pull themselves together with 34th and 36th minute cracks from outside the box by Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans.

But their defense only kept getting worse, something that Diego Valeri exploited in spectacular fashion in the 44th minute.  After Will Johnson took a handout from Adam Moffat, he played to Jewsbury on the right touchline where he faced no opposition.  Jewsbury worked a give and go with Valeri and found Wallace all alone at the top of the box.  Wallace set a slicing Valeri through the Seattle defense where the Argentine slid to finish past Ozzie Alonso and poor, poor Gspurning.

Coming out of halftime, you would have expected Seattle to pin their ears back and go for broke down three goals on aggregate.  If broke is what they were going for, that’s exactly what they were 90 seconds into the second half.

In the 47th minute, Wallace received a quickly taken free kick from Will Johnson on the left side and sent a cross into the box under only nominal pressure.  Sigi Schmid’s employment prospects would have appreciated nominal on pressure on Futty, but the dean of Timbers was entirely unmarked heading toward the near post, where he easily nodded in.

For the next 25 minutes, everybody in the building acted under the assumption that this thing was over.  And that assumption turned out to be correct, even if the Sounders challenged it for a moment by scoring two goals in quick succession.

The first was by way of a Brad Evans long throw.  After Evans heaved the ball in the box, Eddie Johnson got a head to it before it dribbled in front of goal, somehow avoiding everybody until DeAndre Yedlin put it home at the back post.

Just two minutes later, in then 76th minute, Johnson himself got into the act.  After the Timbers sat uncharacteristically deep in defense, Seattle worked the ball to an open Yedlin on the right side.  His cross was a good one, and found Johnson at the goalmouth where he elevated to nod inside the far corner.

Needing to restore order in a hurry lest they let Seattle back in, the Timbers did so by bringing the game back to the midfield.  The ball at the feet of Kalif Alhassan and Diego Chara, the Timbers largely sucked the air out of the game.

But this game wouldn’t have been complete without an appearance from Clint Dempsey.  After Traore launched a free kick two-thirds the distance of the field, it somehow found its way through a gaggle of players from both teams to Dempsey in front of goal.  Deuce, however, put his gold-plated opportunity from the penalty spot wide in a miss that encapsulated his lost maiden voyage in rave green.

In the end, the 5-3 aggregate scoreline flattered the Sounders, as the Timbers were unquestionably the dominant team.  And just like that, the Timbers move on to meet Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference Finals.

Notes & Observations

  • Whereas Saturday in Seattle the Timbers locker room was abuzz with energy, Thursday evening the locker room was as casual as I’ve seen this year.  Will Johnson explained the business-like atmosphere by noting, “the turnaround is so quick, there’s no time to celebrate this week.”  Indeed, ice baths, eating right, and kicking the feet up were common talking points from the players in the clubhouse, as the Timbers had clearly moved on from their victory over Seattle by the time the assembled media were let in less than half an hour after the final whistle.
  • This brings us to yet another point about MLS dropping the ball.  The schedule for the beginning of the Conference Finals is absurd.  The way the schedule is set up assures that any top seed that advances through the first round will have only two days rest while having to travel for their first leg in the Conference Finals.  The lower seed in the Conference Final, on the other hand, gets two full weeks to train and travel for the return leg.  Call it the worst top-seed advantage ever, as Portland heads to Utah to face an RSL side sitting at home waiting on them.  If MLS is going to put as much emphasis as it does on the playoffs – to the detriment of regular season accomplishments[1] – it must ensure that its higher seeds have some sort of advantage.  Otherwise, there is simply little difference between finishing second in the league and fifth in the East.  In this case, MLS erred by hurrying to play the first leg of the Conference Finals on short rest before the international break, then waiting for the return leg two weeks later.  As a result, MLS has prejudiced its best teams over the course of 34 games to the benefit of those who finished down the table.  It’s a common refrain, but MLS must get better.
  • I’m having a hard time knowing how much to read into the Conference Semifinal win.  On one hand, sporting a 10-game unbeaten streak, including six games against playoff opposition, the Timbers’ form right now is impressive.  On the other hand, the Seattle team Portland just beat is bad, and has been for a while.  Their one win in their last ten came over a Colorado Rapids team that was deer-in-the-headlights.  Otherwise, Seattle had one point from their final five regular season matches, and that only came by way of the biggest refereeing blunder in MLS this year.  So, yes, the Timbers are playing well.  But just how well, we’ll have to find out in the Conference Final.
  • The Timbers had two corner kicks in the entire series. Yeah, seriously.

Timbers Grades 

Donovan Ricketts, 4 – This is harsh, because he really didn’t have anything to do until that spell between the 74th and 76th minutes, but Ricketts has to be expected to do better to keep Evans’s long throw from dribbling all the way across his goal.

Michael Harrington, 6 – His grade is depressed somewhat by a little bit of a lazy closeout of Yedlin in the buildup to the second concession, but Harrington was very, very good in the game and the series.

Futty, 7 – Two goals in MLS against the Sounders, and both of them huge.  This one really did the Sounders in, as hour-and-a-quarter horoics notwithstanding, the Sounders’ backs were broken with Futty’s tally.  Would still like to see he and Kah control the box a little bit better, however.

Pa Modou Kah, 5.5 – The lack of box control he and Futty exercise is exposed when the Timbers midfield flattens out and sits deep.  The reality is in the past month, Portland has only been beat by two long throws and a deep cross – both plays where you would like to see your center backs take command.

Jack Jewsbury, 9 – Who foresaw Jack Jewsbury being the hero of the Conference Semifinals?  Look back at each of the five goals the Timbers scored against Seattle.  Who was involved in the buildup of each one? Jack.  If his form continues, the Timbers will be very difficult for anybody to beat, and Jack will cement his rightful place as a Timbers legend.

Will Johnson, 6.5 – He doesn’t fill up the corners, but Johnson is a tricky little penalty taker, consistently sending keepers the wrong way.  Whereas Chara was the dominant force in the midfield on Saturday, it was Johnson on Thursday, repeatedly turning Seattle over and launching the attack.

Diego Chara, 6 – A little bit quieter game from Chara than we’ve seen recently.  Sure, he had his chance through on goal, but we all knew how that was going to turn out.  Did his job nicely in midfield, winning tackles and connecting his trademark simple, correct passes.  Still, Chara just wasn’t quite as dominant as he was in Seattle.

Rodney Wallace, 7.5 – Seattle simply had no answer for Rodney.  Should have scored in the third minute, but otherwise made the most of his outing by repeatedly terrorizing whichever Sounder was unfortunate enough to be in Wallace’s way.

Diego Valeri, 7 – Seattle focused its hacking on Valeri on Thursday, and he responded by taking blow after blow, and delivering blow after blow.  His goal before halftime was the setup to Futty’s knockout punch.

Darlington Nagbe, 8 – Quietly special on Thursday.  Completed 32 of 35 passes in the attacking half, including many in the final third.  A lot of Seattle’s defensive balance problems were because they couldn’t defend Nagbe straight up.  And not having to ever play a full 90 minutes in this series, Darlington may well have some gas in the tank for Salt Lake.

Ryan Johnson, 7 – Another unlikely hero against Seattle, RJ’s value was in his linkup play on Thursday.  Two key passes don’t do his effect justice, as it was often his popping up for combinations in the middle of the Timbers buildup that pulled a central defender out of position and allowed his teammates to carve up the carcass that was the Seattle backline.

Kalif Alhassan, 6 – His ability to hold the ball has proven helpful late in games.  After the Sounders scored their goals, the ball often found itself at Kalif’s feet, where the Timbers found success killing off the series.

Maxi Urruti, 5 – Tough time to go down with an injury, as Ryan Johnson has stepped firmly into the starting number nine role.  Urruti may have to wait until 2014 for his real chance.

Ben Zemanski, INC. – He came, he ran, he didn’t do much else.

Onward, Rose City!

[1] For example, USSF, in cahoots with MLS, allocates Champions League berths to both Conference Champions in the playoffs, while only awarding one to the Supporters Shield winner in the regular season.

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