By James Morgan
The match was of mixed significance for the two sides. On the one hand, a struggling San Jose currently sits at the bottom of the MLS Western Conference standings with just five points from seven games and on the business end of a five-game winless streak with three consecutive losses. A win was clearly needed and coach Frank Yallop started with most of his regular XI on the field.
The Timbers, coming off an upset win over Real Salt Lake, started with their reserve squad, with five players making their first starts of the season. The only regular starter was goalkeeper Troy Perkins. Timbers’ head coach John Spencer could not easily have sent a clearer message that the USOC is of limited importance to the Timbers this year and that resting up his starting squad for Friday’s tussle with the currently rampaging Philadelphia Union is a much larger priority.
In the event, it was a long, slow and often lackadaisical match in which both sides distinguished themselves more through mediocrity and a general failure to execute, than through anything else. The exceptions were the goalkeepers, both of whom played well and made several good saves. San Jose began to show signs of life in the final minutes that led to their single goal, but if the rest of their play is any indication, it will come as a surprise to no one that they are at the bottom of the standings.
For their part, the Timbers came out looking good and playing hard, but although they were able to create several excellent opportunities in the first 20 minutes or so of play, they were unable to get it past Earthquakes goalkeeper Andrew Weber and soon began to slow down. In the latter minutes of the first half, San Jose began to gain a bit of momentum and in the 35th minute nearly scored after Perkins batted away an on-goal penalty kick, only to have San Jose midfielder Brad Ring send it well over the top on a shot that should have gone home.
Much of the second half play was a bit chippy and while neither side looked especially competent or dangerous, several yellow cards were handed out. They added what little of interest there was to this snoozer of a game. In the 83rd minute Yallop subbed forward Steven Lenhart for midfielder Khari Stephenson in an apparent bid to increase offensive pressure, but though Lenhart was briefly able to energize the ‘Quakes, for the most part, the mediocrity droned on and if their respective hoarding of subs was any indication, neither Spencer nor Yallop expected the match to end in the first 90.
The final half hour of play was largely uneventful as well. Both coaches used their remaining subs, but it looked sure to go to penalty kicks when, in the 119th minute, off a corner kick by midfielder Sam Cronin, defender Ike Opara bumped in a header for the winning goal.
On the whole, the match was astonishingly boring and typified by amateurish play. While much of it was understandable and to be expected on the part of the young reserve Timbers players, San Jose basically disgraced itself and underlined its paucity of real ability and talent.
Other Notes and Questions:
While the USOC dates back to 1914 and is, for American soccer enthusiasts, important on that account alone, it is also significant because as of 2008 its winner is automatically awarded a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. It seems pretty safe to say that after doing a little math, Timbers’ General Manager Gavin Wilkinson and Coach John Spencer, no doubt in consultation with owner Merritt Paulson, decided that ensuring a successful first season in MLS is more important than winning an obscure cup that guarantees the Timbers entrance to a tournament they are almost certain to do poorly in. (Never mind the fact that they just beat one of this year’s finalists in said tournament; on any given day, Real Salt Lake is far more likely to destroy the Timbers than otherwise. That it didn’t happen this time probably has at least as much to do with RSL’s recent heartbreaking loss to CF Monterrey as it does with playing at Jeld-Wen Field.) All of which brings me to a rash statement of opinion: the Timbers were very right to not take the USOC seriously, to play it with their reserves, and to focus instead on winning this Friday’s match against an indomitable-looking Philadelphia Union.
San Jose has some serious issues. Team Captain Chris Wondolowski won last year’s MLS Golden Boot as the league’s leading goal scorer with 18 goals, but no team can expect success on the strength of a single player. The Earthquakes are currently struggling on a variety of fronts. If their performance against the Timbers’ second-line players is any indication, they are in for a long and tough year.
With an official attendance of 11,412 at this match, the Timbers, who claim to have sold out their entire season, have a bit of explaining to do. The short explanation, courtesy of Brian Costello, the Timbers’ Director of Digital Communications, is that non-MLS matches aren’t included in the season ticket package and have to be purchased separately with the result that only hardcore fans buy them. This makes sense, and while only a fool would expect that next Friday’s crowd won’t be as raucous and loud as ever, it does bear mentioning that Tuesday’s crowd was very thin by normal Timbers standards.
Final point: as anemic as they looked, I do not believe that the ‘Quakes would have stood a chance against the starting Timbers XI that took down RSL, FCD and the Chicago Fire at Jeld-Wen Field. It is one thing to play the Timbers’ second-line before a half-sized crowd, but quite another to play their regular starters in the roaring maw that is a sold-out Jeld-Wen Field.