By James Morgan
If there is something to be said for consistency, then the Portland Timbers have to be pleased, if not necessarily thrilled, with the outcome of Saturday evening’s match against the Columbus Crew. Sold-out home crowd? Check. Win on a set-piece? Check. Rain? There was even some of that. But while the game wasn’t a total sleeper, neither was it a white-knuckler and if you wanted to see offensive fireworks, for the most part you would have had to look elsewhere.
Perhaps fittingly, Ohio native and former Crew defender Eric Brunner paid his old team back for not protecting him in last year’s MLS Superdraft by heading in a neat pass from midfielder Kalif Alhassan off of a speedy free kick by forward Jorge Perlaza in the 46th minute for the win.
The match thus far had been more or less evenly contested and while the Timbers looked to have a slight advantage on speed and attacking in the first half, they were unable to create any real scoring opportunities.
Primarily, the first half was marked by physical play, a referee, Edvin Jurisivic, who may have tried to overcompensate a bit too much for the Timbers’ by now very well-known home-field advantage, and the widely-respected Columbus back-line’s efforts to bludgeon Timbers forwards Kenny Cooper and Jorge Perlaza into submission.
The strong-arm tactics did not work as Perlaza repeatedly out-hustled an often frustrated-looking Chad Marshall while the always imposing Cooper, as is his habit, simply lumbered through the Crew’s back-line on the strength of size and conviction.
The two yellow cards handed out in the first half were directly related to this showdown with team captain and long-time MLS standout defender Chad Marshall earning his in the 23rd minute on a hard tackle against Perlaza, and in an odd turn of officiating, Cooper earning one in the 37th for overreacting to a Julius James tackle, while nonetheless being awarded a free kick on what was evidently the same event.
Towards the end of the first half the Timbers began to slow down a bit and Timbers keeper Troy Perkins barely knuckled away a 42nd minute diving header by Crew forward Tom Heinemann, bringing to naught one of the Ohioans’ few real chances on goal for the night.
In any case, the Timbers apparent slowdown was evidently a trick; they came roaring back on target early in the second with Brunner’s goal putting them up one, and with a variety of fast-paced attacks down the sides that repeatedly tested the accomplished Crew defense. They were aided by the substitution, at the half, of midfielder Darlington Nagbe –who’s been struggling with a groin injury– with forward Sal Zizzo, yet another indication, if one was needed, that Timbers head coach John Spencer is all about offensive aggression as the best answer to a solid defense.
The match carried on through much of the second half with the Timbers continually pressing, but finding themselves unable to execute. For their part, the Crew pushed back, but was never really able to consistently threaten until the final minutes when they rallied for a pair of dangerous opportunities, one of which barely bounced off the outside post in a stroke of luck for the Timbers.
In keeping with the physical nature of the match, another pair of yellow cards were given out in the second half, one in the 82nd minute to Columbus defender Julius James for a savage tackle against Perlaza that very much looked like retribution for the Colombian’s exasperating speed, and another in the 85th minute to Perlaza’s childhood friend and fellow Colombian, midfielder Diego Chará for an unusually brutal hip-check that one can’t help but suspect was motivated, at least in part, by the hard tackle against Perlaza.
The win bumps the Timbers up to 5-3-2 and with 17 points puts them in a three-way tie with the Seattle Sounders FC and FC Dallas for second place in the MLS Western Conference Standings. With the loss, The Crew (3-3-4) drops to fourth place in the MLS Eastern Conference Standings.
Other Random Notes and Questions:
The Timbers continue to look pretty bullet-proof at home. With five wins and no losses or draws in regular season play at Jeld-Wen Field, they have the best home record in the league. After what’s been widely acknowledged as an embarrassing blowout at LA, last week’s draw at Seattle proved that they have what it takes, if not to win, then at least to draw on the road against high-end teams. At the risk of sounding like a broken record player, the question remains; is there any chance of them translating that home-field dominance into road victories? It’s a question that’s worth resolving because if they can make the transition to being dominant on the road as well, they will easily become one of the most formidable sides in all of MLS.
As for the Crew, it looks like they may be in the throws of a rebuilding year. While they continue to be one of the finest defensive sides in MLS, and while they are fairly storied in their own right for whatever that’s worth in such a young league, the fact is that they are only fourth in the Eastern Conference which brings us to a larger issue: for whatever reason, in recent years MLS has become a bit lopsided and wanting for parity between the Eastern and Western Conferences, both in terms of performance and attendance. So what’s next Mr. Commissioner Garner? What do you do when all but two of your high-attendance sides are on the west coast or the Rocky Mountains and people back east don’t seem to give a hoot about MLS? I don’t personally have any answers and I guess if it was up to me I’d just wait another year and see if what’s happening out west and in Canada might catch on, but that said, I’m not sad that it’s an issue I don’t have to tackle.
Are the Timbers getting a bit tired of their increasingly solid reputation as the league’s set-piece specialists, or do they not care at all since a goal earned on a set piece is as good as any other? If I were John Spencer or General Manager Gavin Wilkinson, while I wouldn’t be overly concerned about the team’s apparent reliance on set pieces –Saturday’s was a league-leading sixth of the season– I would want to think about diversifying a bit since a side that only scores one way becomes increasingly easy to defend against, even if they do have a brutal home-field advantage.
Finally, I don’t think it’s too early to deliver a verdict on Diego Chará, Portland’s first DP, so here’s mine: he’s worth it, is everything we were promised, and while he’s yet to score any goals, I think it’s just a matter of time before he does. Here’s why: Chará sets a blistering pace, maintains it throughout the match, and is there in the mix in nearly all circumstances. His terrier-like persistence, speed and aggression –from box to box– frees up the rest of the midfield to make things happen with overlapping wing attacks that rely on Perlaza’s speed and on crosses playing to Cooper’s size and positioning. I like it. With Chará, Portland’s offense is, arguably, one of the finest in the league.