Throughout 2013, the Portland Timbers have repeatedly found ways to earn a result on the road. Multiple times – at Seattle, Colorado, and Vancouver – the Timbers found a way to earn a point from a game in which they easily could have come out empty handed. Recently, however, the Timbers had increasingly shown their ability to dominate on the road, with a comfortable 2-0 result at D.C. marking the least stressful road fixture in Portland’s MLS history.
And so it was in the early going on Saturday. In the first minute Frederic Piquionne got free in the box at the near post and cracked a seemingly goalward shot, but Sean Johnson got foot to it and deflected the ball just enough to send it off the crossbar. Diego Valeri gathered on the far post, however, and rolled the ball back into the box for Diego Chara, whose finish also met its demise on the woodwork.
Three minutes later, the post got into the action. After Michael Harrington found space on the left he sent a cross toward Will Johnson. Johnson couldn’t quite get a solid head to the ball, but his looping header caught the Sean Johnson by surprise and floated toward the goal, only to be denied by the back post.
As dominant as the first ten minutes were, however, Portland couldn’t come away with the opening goal – or two – that would have put Chicago on their back foot. In the tenth minute, the Timbers were the ones fortunate to stay level. After the Timbers’ defense flattened out, Patrick Nyarko found Chris Rolfe free at the top of the box. Rolfe’s shot, however, sailed high, aided to some extent by the fingertips of Milos Kocic.
There was no question who the better team was in the first half, however, as the Timbers moved through, around, and over the Fire midfield. Portland reaped their first reward in the 33rd minute. After Milos Kocic found Frederic Piquionne with a long ball, the striker flicked on to Diego Valeri running between Jalil Anibaba and Bakary Soumare. Valeri used some fancy footwork in the box to earn a foot of space, and put his boot through a ball that once again bounced off the near post, but this time nestled into the far side netting.
With the quality of the Timbers’ chances, going into halftime only up 1-0 was in many ways a disappointment. As Will Johnson put it in the postgame locker room, “one-nothing at halftime really flattered [the Fire]. We should have easily been up multiple goals at halftime and put the game away.”
The Timbers had the opportunity to do just that in the 57th minute, when the Timbers carved up the Fire on the counter once again. Darlington Nagbe sprinted up the left side and laid the ball back for Diego Valeri 25 yards out, but his well-struck ball was saved by a diving Sean Johnson.
There would be no saving the next strike from that distance, however. After Valeri set Piquionne free on the right wing, the Martinique international took the ball to the byline and cut back to find space to feed Ben Zemanski back into the center 20 yards from goal. The Akron alumnus took Piquionne’s 58th minute pass and smashed it passed the Fire defense and into the net in front of more than 150 travelling Timbers Army. To everybody in the stadium, the rout appeared to be on.
Perhaps sensing the game was under control, Caleb Porter replaced Valeri – who had been fantastic both in the attack and in keeping the ball moving through the midfield – with Sal Zizzo in the 67th minute.
Porter would come to regret that a minute later, when the Timbers control was fumbled away. After a turnover in the midfield, Mike Magee slipped behind the Portland defense with only Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Milos Kocic to beat. Jean-Baptiste appeared to have Magee shielded off from the ball, and Kocic came out to collect, but the keeper fumbled the ball after a collision with the young defender, and Magee tapped into an open net.
From there, the game would look absolutely nothing like it did for the first hour. Chicago threw numbers forward and the Timbers struggled to relieve the pressure. The Fire struggled to create genuine chances, however, as their attack from the run of play sputtered in the face of a generally well-organized Timbers defense.
The Fire were successful in one important respect, however, as they earned set piece after set piece in the attacking third. And ultimately that’s how they found the equalizer.
After an 82nd minute foul twenty-five yards out that Caleb Porter called “questionable,” Daniel Paladini bent a beautiful free kick over the Timbers’ wall and into the near side netting where Kocic had no chance.
In twenty-five minutes the Timbers had gone from a presumptive rout to facing the real possibility of coming away empty handed. Portland responded well, however, as the leveled score forced Chicago to pull some of its numbers back.
In the 88th minute, Darlington Nagbe found the space Portland had been exploiting all day in front of the Fire backline and let loose a shot from his right foot 20 yards out, but the worm burner dragged wide of the near post.
A minute later Patrick Nyarko put a scare into Portland after he collected a nice through ball past Pa Modou Kah and looked to send a dangerous low cross in front of goal, but Kocic stuck it at the near post to preserve the draw.
Under most circumstances, earning a road point while missing three of their most effective players should be nothing the Timbers would shake a stick at. But after running Chicago off the field for more than an hour and building a two-goal lead, the draw is, as Porter put it postgame, “a bit of a bitter pill.”
Quotes & Observations
- After the game, Porter once again found a positive morsel to take out of the result. “You know, we’re disappointed. It’s a bit of a bitter pill, but, you know, I think we’ll learn from it, we’ll be better from it, and we didn’t lose the game. We still got a point. We’re still unbeaten on the road. In 14 games, there has still been only one team that’s beaten us. So I think it’s a great thing that we’re still getting points, but we’re a little bit ticked off leaving this game feeling like we let two points slip away.” Porter returned to the topic of learning lessons while earning points, “Again, the fact that we can learn a lesson without losing the game I think is a positive thing. It will make us a better team . . . A lot of teams have to take losses to learn lessons, and we’ve learned lessons while getting points.”
- Don’t let the disappointment of the result completely overshadow some of the positives, especially in the first half. As Porter pointed out, “some of the best stuff I’ve seen out of this team happened in this game. In that first half there was a period of about twenty minutes that was electric.”
- I thought, however, that taking off Valeri so early was a mistake. He had been Portland’s most effective player through the midfield on Saturday. Although Chicago were always going to try to push numbers forward, they could do so with a little bit more impunity with Portland’s primary playmaker off the field, as Valeri’s absence muted the Timbers’ remarkable ability to transition from defense to attack.
Milos Kocic, 5.5 – He probably should have held onto the ball that led to the first concession, but that wasn’t entirely on him. Otherwise, Kocic’s positioning was fantastic. Chicago had a handful of dangerous-looking shots go right at Milos because the keeper put himself in the perfect spot.
Michael Harrington, 7 – By far his best game as a Timber. Solid defensively, but much more involved on the offensive end than he’s been thus far. As Porter pointed out, “Darlington and [Harrington] have a pretty good partnership. Because Darlington was warranting a lot of attention coming inside and playing in that little pocket tucked in, I think that opened up space for Mikey.” He made the most of that space, sending several dangerous crosses across the box.
Andrew Jean-Baptiste, 4.5 – Shares responsibility for the first goal, as it was his failure to stay in front of Magee that started the whole play, and ultimately it was him colliding with Kocic that knocked the ball loose. Otherwise a decent game under difficult circumstances in the final 25 minutes, with the Fire committing everybody forward.
Pa Modou Kah, 5.5 – Despite a couple loose passes, Kah’s defense – especially in the first half – was solid. His only bad habit thus far is he has a tendency to stray a little bit too much from his central position.
Jack Jewsbury, 5 – A pretty standard game from Jack. The Fire didn’t create a whole lot in and around him. As was part of the game plan, Jack got forward a little bit more than usual, but didn’t create nearly as much of it as Harrington.
Diego Chara, 6 – He was the biggest reason why the Timbers crushed the Fire’s midfield in the first half. His nine recoveries led all players, and Chicago couldn’t handle the speed with which he launched into the attack. Had a harder time late in the game, as the Fire’s shelling of the Timbers’ backline took him out of his game. Also probably should have finished his first minute chance, but there’s no real surprise there.
Ben Zemanski, 6.5 – Doesn’t have Chara’s positional know-how, but looked better in a central midfield role than he has in the past. His beautifully struck goal is really what sends his grade soaring.
Will Johnson, 5.5 – Was more involved in the attack than usual, but really wasn’t the most threatening creative force. Nonetheless, a more than adequate game from Will.
Darlington Nagbe, 6 – I agree with Porter’s sentiment about Nagbe’s work creating space on the left side. Although Nagbe didn’t get on the scoresheet, he freed up a lot of real estate that the Timbers exploited over and over on Saturday.
Diego Valeri, 8 – The best player on the field by a bit of a margin. Connected on 22 of his 24 passes, had a very well taken goal, and sprung Piquionne to eventually set up Zemanski’s goal. His late absence was conspicuous.
Frederic Piquionne, 7 – After four goals in the Open Cup opener and two assists on Saturday, Caleb Porter will have decisions to make in the next couple weeks. It’s going to be hard to keep Piquionne off the field.
Sal Zizzo, 5 – In limited opportunities, Sal did what he does – fly down the right wing. He was fairly effective in doing so, as he created a couple half chances for the Timbers on the right. Ultimately, however, he couldn’t help relieve the Fire’s pressure.
Jose Valencia, INC. – Probably came on too late to make a whole lot of a difference.
Preseason Prediction: Timbers 2, Fire 1. Ryan Johnson, Nagbe.
Actual Result: Timbers 2, Fire 2. Valeri, Zemanski.
Onward, Rose City!
 I didn’t see this until after watching the replay a few times but just before the collision between Kocic and Jean-Baptiste, Magee put a shoulder into AJB’s back, causing the defender to lose his balance and tumble into Kocic. It really was only an arguable foul, however, as AJB was swerving to cut Magee off when Magee laid into him.
 It should be noted that this was Valeri’s first game back from his hamstring injury.