It’s nice to have this feeling again in the Rose City. Looking out over Jeld-Wen Field on Saturday evening, with the Timbers Army in full pregame voice, and Portland and Dallas warming up below, it was impossible to escape the feeling that this game carried significant consequences. Win, and the Timbers would look poised to make a serious run at the Supporters Shield in the final third of the season. Lose, and Portland’s playoff hopes would dangle perilously above the red line with the team mired in its most serious slump of the year.
On Saturday night, behind a dazzling performance from Diego Valeri, a tireless outing from Diego Chara, and clinical finishes from Darlington Nagbe and Ryan Johnson, the Timbers gained a vital foothold in the Western Conference playoff race and downed FC Dallas 2-1.
It wasn’t for lack of trying on the Burn’s part, however. Themselves stuck in a rut, Dallas come out buzzing in the midfield behind Jackson and Fabian Castillo. In the 15th minute, Jackson found space 25 yards from goal and ripped a hard, swerving shot from distance, but Donovan Ricketts got a shoulder in front of it, and parried away.
That spark that had been missing from the Portland attack was found early on, however. 21 minutes in, Ben Zemanski came up with an interception in the midfield and played a give-and-go to Valeri to set the Argentine through on goal in the box. Valeri’s first touch betrayed him, however, and he pushed his open effort well wide.
If Valeri has been out of his element with his own finishing touch recently, he’s been nothing short of spectacular in creating chances for others. In the 26th minute, Valeri sent a picture perfect corner into the center of the box, where Ryan Johnson easily out-jumped George John at the top of the six to emphatically nod home.
The tension that had mounted as a result of the stretch of middling results and the gravity of the game seemed to evaporate with Johnson’s headed finish. Perhaps even a little bit too much.
Two minutes later, Dallas got back in the game. After Fabian Castillo worked a quick give-and-go with Blas Perez, the Colombian played Mauro Diaz into the box, where, unlike Valeri, he coolly slotted past a helpless Ricketts.
And Dallas wasn’t done. Four minutes later, it was Jackson causing problems for the Timbers backline. The Brazilian beat Andrew Jean-Baptiste and worked his way to the byline, where he cut a pass back across the box for David Ferreira. Ferreira gathered and fired, but in a moment of good fortune for the Timbers, his shot sailed just over the bar.
If the Timbers’ initial reaction to conceding was nervy, their reaction to the near miss was decisive. In the 33rd minute, Valeri was back to magic making. After Diego Chara won two aerial balls in a matter of seconds, Valeri gathered and played a perfectly weighted pass to Nagbe on his right. Nagbe, with room to take his habitual touch, controlled and fired past Raul Fernandez to put Portland back in front.
Despite plenty of vivacious play from both teams, neither side could continue the torrid pace that saw three goals in seven minutes, and the teams retreated into halftime at 2-1.
There was no retreat in Dallas out of the locker room, however. In the 50th minute, David Ferreira got in behind Alvas Powell and eventually found Michel on the left side, but Perez made a mess of the ensuing cross.
By the hour mark, Portland had their foot back on the game. In the 63rd minute, Portland broke out and set Rodney Wallace free down the left. Nagbe and Johnson’s runs in the box were well-covered, however, so Wallace took a crack himself that Fernandez did well to knock away.
The pressure largely relieved form Portland’s backline, FC Dallas were left to hope that they could grab an equalizing goal against the run of play. Their prayers were almost answered in the 75th minute, when Ramon Nunez gathered a long ball and found an inch of space 25 yards out, but his shot skidded just wide of the far post.
Three minutes later, Ramon Nunez smashed a dangerous free kick into the wall, but it bounced right to Castillo on the left side of the box. Despite a whole wave of Hoops at the back post, Erick’s header went high.
From there, Dallas looked burned out, as the Timbers comfortably played the game out by holding the ball far from Donovan Ricketts and the Portland defense.
The three points put Portland within striking distance of the top of the table with the Conference leading Claret-and-Cobalt coming to town on Wednesday.
It looks like it’s time to get used to that feeling.
Notes & Observations
- While Saturday wasn’t the Timbers’ most dominant performance, a lot of that had to do with Dallas playing pretty well. Castillo and Jackson were really feeling it, causing the Timbers real problems in the middle for pretty good chunks of the game. Nonetheless, the 2-1 result was well deserved; as for most of the game Portland was the better team.
- Portland’s first half tactics were interesting considering the lineup they put on the field. As we’ve seen before, the Timbers stretched their center backs out wide when they were attacking and dropped a central midfielder into the hole just in front of the backline. This allowed both fullbacks to get forward and opened up the spaces in the center that Valeri had a field day in. It’s not that this tactic is unusual for the Timbers, as they’ve employed it a number of times, but it is unusual with Rodney Wallace in the lineup, as he seems to enjoy chalk on his boots.
- I would be surprised if Portland didn’t reprise this strategy against RSL. With Kyle Beckerman suspended, the Timbers will be eager once again to exploit central spaces. If Portland’s center backs are again spread out, Salt Lake should counter by starting Joao Plata for the second consecutive match. Plata’s pernicious pace is potentially poised to punish Portland’s protective positioning.
Donovan Ricketts, 6.5 – He didn’t make any amazing saves, but his placement on Saturday was outstanding, as a number of otherwise dangerous FCD shots hit him right in the numbers.
Alvas Powell, 4 – Calmed down in the last half hour, and put in some nice work during that period, but Powell was the defense’s weakest link by some distance on Saturday, including being one bookend of the considerable space that Diaz ran into to equalize.
Pa Modou Kah, 6 – One of his better games as a Timber. Although his grade is deflated a little because he and Powell left the space for Diaz, Kah generally dealt well with the extra brunt of Dallas’s attack he absorbed as a result of Powell being to his right.
Andrew Jean-Baptiste, 5 – Not AJB’s best outing, as he was beaten once or twice more than we’re used to. Still, he didn’t make any major mistakes and frustrated the daylights out of Blas Perez.
Michael Harrington, 5.5 – Another solid performance from Harrington. Got forward a little bit, though he didn’t necessarily make the most of that. His defending, however, has been nothing if not reliable over the last several weeks.
Diego Chara, 7.5 – This was a difficult game for Diego, as the combination of Portland pushing numbers forward and Dallas’s variety of options in midfield made it so that Chara had to cover a lot of ground. Even when Dallas’s offense was clicking, however, Chara was up to the task.
Ben Zemanski, 6.5 – It was clear Dallas didn’t regard him as much of an offensive threat, and he showed why on a couple occasions. But he was disrupting things in the midfield like a man possessed, which ultimately led to some of Portland’s best opportunities.
Darlington Nagbe, 6 – Didn’t terrorize Dallas like he normally does, but his finish on the Timbers’ second goal was fantastic.
Diego Valeri, 8 – Tough man of the match contest between he and the other Diego, but other than his badly missed chance, Valeri was electric. If the Timbers finish 2013 strong, it will be hard to argue that Valeri was anything but the signing of the year in MLS.
Rodney Wallace, 5.5 – Rodney was very effective on Saturday night until he got near the box. Once there, he made a few decisions that were less than ideal; usually calling his own number rather than dishing to an open teammate.
Ryan Johnson, 6.5 – Four shots, three on frame, one in the net. Basically, a standard night at the office for Ryan.
Jose Valencia, 5.5 – Was his usual aggressive self in the attacking third on Saturday, racking up three fouls in 17 minutes. But Trencito generally did his job nicely in keeping Dallas’s backline occupied to prevent them from throwing too many numbers forward.
Kalif Alhassan, 6 – I didn’t like his substitution, but Kalif proved that’s why CP – not CR – is coaching the Timbers. Kalif was very good in his role on Saturday, completing all 16 of his passes and helping to kill off the game.
Preseason Prediction: Timbers 1, Dallas 1. Cooper and Ryan Miller (!).
Actual Result: Timbers 2, Dallas 1. Ryan Johnson, Mauro Diaz, and Darlington Nagbe.
Onward, Rose City!