By James Morgan

The Portland Timbers (3-3-1) beat heavily favored Real Salt Lake (4-1-0) 1-0 before a sold-out crowd Saturday night at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland.  The Timbers’ newly acquired designated player, Diego Chará, performed as advertised and, along with Darlington Nagbe, who started for the first time this season, as well as Kalif Alhassan and team captain Jack Jewsbury, gave new life to the Timbers’ defensive efforts in the midfield.

Real Salt lake (RSL), fresh off of Wednesday’s heartbreaking loss to CF Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League Final at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, looked moribund and a mere shadow of the team that’s widely considered MLS’s finest.  The loss to the Timbers is RSL’s first in this year’s MLS play and breaks their league-leading 18 game unbeaten streak in regular season play.

The match was the Timbers’ third at home and in keeping with what seems to be becoming a habit, they played well before the roaring home crowd, threatening several times in the first few minutes.

In the 22nd minute, forward Kenny Cooper scored off of a beautiful pass across the box by Alhassan, tapping it past RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando.  It was Cooper’s team-leading third goal of the season and Alhassan’s fourth assist, which ties him for fourth in the league with Los Angeles’ David Beckham.

It was only the second goal that the vaunted RSL defense has allowed  this season, and the first in over 213 minutes of play.

RSL quickly answered with an attack of its own and in the 27th minute made a dangerous shot on goal, but Portland starting keeper, Troy Perkins, was there for the save.  Two minutes later RSL threatened again off of a corner kick, and the always-dangerous defender Nat Borcher was there to knock a header in off of an Arturo Alvarez cross, only to see it called back on an offside call.

In the second quarter of the match, the Timbers continued to slow down, though Colombians and long-time teammates Chará and Jorge Perlaza continued to maintain a blistering work rate.  RSL continued to show excellent passing and ball control, dominating in overall possession, but they could not seem to find inspiration in the final third of the pitch and were unable to execute.

At the half, RSL coach Jason Kreis evidently thought better of his midfield strategy, and replaced reserve players Collen Warner and Jean Alexander with regular starters Andy Williams and Will Johnson respectively.  It did not initially have the desired effect, and though RSL continued to push, they created few real chances.  For their part, the Timbers seemed content to drop back and defend, and to their credit, in contrast to their performance in recent matches, they seemed capable of doing so.

In the 74th minute Timbers coach John Spencer switched from his traditional 4-4-2 formation, to a 4-1-4-1 as midfielder James Marcelin came in for forward Jorge Perlaza.  In the 82nd midfielder Sal Zizzo came in for Nagbe and with the fresh sets of legs, the Timbers defense looked good to hold against a ferocious RSL attack in the final minutes.

With RSL, known for being very dangerous in the closing minutes, and the Timbers, known for collapsing defensively, the last ten, plus two and a half of stoppage time, were very tense, with RSL creating multiple opportunities and continually threatening.  However, the Timbers defense held this time.  Perkins distinguished himself and continued to have a good night with a pair of brilliant saves in the 89th and 90th minutes respectively.

In the first minute of stoppage, forward Ryan Pore came in for an exhausted Kenny Cooper, but it was by then largely a moot point and the Timbers took away their third consecutive victory at home.

Other Notes and Questions:

The Timbers have consistently looked a completely different team at home.  If they can find a way to translate that into success on the road, they’ll have real potential.

It remains to be seen as to how much wind last Wednesday’s CCL Final loss against Monterrey took out of RSL’s sails.  Widely seen as the team to beat in MLS this year, they did not perform well in Portland.  Can they bounce back and get back to winning?

It’s safe to say that Diego Chará did not disappoint.  Neither did Darlington Nagbe.  Chará was everywhere and maintained an astonishing work rate, delivering on the promised box to box coverage.  Both he and Nagbe worked well with Jewsbury and Alhassan.  Could this be the beginning of the end for the Timbers’ defensive struggles?

Another sold-out crowd at Jeld-Wen Field and yet another home victory –this time over one of the league’s finest sides– again raises the issue of the Timbers’ home field advantage.  It seems pretty clear that the psychological boost they gain from playing before the most raucous supporters in MLS is huge.