Tag Archives: Chicago Fire

Backs To The Wall

The Timbers go into the second leg of the Western Conference final knowing that they need a huge performance to turn around a two goal deficit to Real Salt Lake. That this is not the first time that Portland have faced adversity should give Timbers fans some hope, and Kevin Alexander goes over three previous occasions where the Timbers have had their backs to the wall, and come out fighting.

Welcome Home?

14th April 2011, Portland Timbers vs Chicago Fire

The difficulty here wasn’t so much in the strength of the opposition – the Fire picked up one point in six trips to the west coast in 2011 – but in the occasion. This was the home opener, the first MLS match in Soccer City, and the fans were beyond ready for it to get here.

This was despite an indifferent start that had seen the Timbers outscored 2-6 in the opening three road games. Coming into the home games, they were being forced to make changes at the back with key players still missing.

So, injury troubles, tough road trips and a keyed up home crowd. This should all sound pretty familiar.

Jake Gleeson was making his second start, and in front of him Futty Danso was making his MLS debut after a David Horst ankle knock. All these guys are still around the club, in some shape or form, but this curtain raising team is noticeable more the guys who’ve moved on:

    Eric Brunner, the one solid part of a shifting and unsettled defense;
    Steve Purdy, the dependable full back soon to be adjudged to be less good than Jeremy Hall;
    Jeremy Hall, the ineffective right winger adjudged to be of less harm in defence;
    James Marcelin, the non-soccer specialist and Keeper of Secrets;
    Jorge Perlaza, the striker who ran a lot and didn’t score;
    and Kenny Cooper, the striker who fell a lot and did, but not enough.

Troy Perkins, who would’ve started had he been fit, and whose trade is turning out to be the greatest trick Gavin ever pulled.

James Marcelin replaced Peter Lowry for the draw against New England, and he held onto his place alongside Jack Jewsbury in the heart of midfield for the visit of Chicago.

Now, I mean no disrespect to either guy (both of whom have a bunch of MLS appearances and goals under their belts), but read that sentence again:

James Marcelin replaced Peter Lowry for the draw against New England, and he held onto his place alongside Jack Jewsbury in the heart of midfield for the visit of Chicago.

How far we’ve come in terms of player quality and depth since 2011.

As for the game, well, the heavens opened and 29 minutes in Jorge Perlaza delivered the first MLS goal to Portland. Rodney Wallace doubled it eight minutes later. Perlaza added a third after the break before the Timbers were pushed back by two late Chicago goals. An own goal off a Jewbury corner restored a two goal cushion and sealed the win.

It was a win which kickstarted the season, and the terrific home form was almost entirely responsible for the close run at the making the playoffs.

Meet The Neighbors

24 June 2012, Portland Timbers vs Seattle Sounders

A little less than a month had passed since Cal FC had hammered what would later prove to be biggest and shiniest nail in John Spencer’s head coaching coffin. The visit of the Sounders was the Timbers’ first match at Jeld-Wen since that night, but having lost in LA the previous week Portland went into the derby match with more than just local pride at stake.

Spencer replaced Hanyer Mosquera, suspended, with Futty Danso, and Mike Chabala was replaced by Steven Smith, who had been spared playing in LA in mid-June. Ex-Sounder Mike Fucito made his first start for Portland, replacing Danny Mwanga alongside Kris Boyd.

Again, that last sentence should underline the difference in quality and depth from then to now. There are times we’ve been stretched by injuries or call-ups, but I’m happier knowing that there is an Alhassan or Valencia to step in and not, well, Fucito or Mwanga. That kind of depth is worth points here and there, and makes the difference over 34, or more, games.

Meanwhile, Franck Songo’o, Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan were the three attacking midfielders, with Diego Chara given the work of two men to do on his own, as usual. It was a formation that, in retrospect, seems designed to bring out the worst in his players: Chara has so much to do that at times there’s no option but to foul, even if it’s right on the edge of his own box; Songo’o, the mercurial winger and creative attacker, Barcelona and all that, was asked to defend; Nagbe, the young and inconsistent player was given a role where his tendency to drift out of games left a gaping hole right in front of the (patchwork) defence; Alhassan, who borrowed a bit from both Songo’o and Nagbe in his nature and aversion to the kind of kick-and-rush high intensity football Spencer wanted to play.

And yet, despite these glaring deficiencies, magic happened, as it does in Portland from time to time.

There was no getting away from the plain fact that Seattle were the better team, and looked set to finish the job that Cal FC had started in ending Spencer’s time in the top job. He must surely have known he was living on borrowed time, and aware that a bad result against Seattle could bring about the end.

Spencer put his trust in his striker, another man unaware his Timbers career was all but over. Kris Boyd delivered the opening goal after only a quarter of an hour, set up by Smith and Songo’o.

This would be John Spencer’s last hurrah in Portland. A couple of bad results on the road ended his stewardship, a 3-0 loss at Real Salt Lake the last time we saw him prowling the touchline. He went out fighting though, and his team delivered a 2-1 win that was the foundation for a run towards the Cascadia Cup in 2012 – the green shoots at the end of two long, barren years.

From Boyd’s “I can’t hear a thing” celebration, to his confrontation with Fredy Montero, and the explosion of noise when Portland’s least favorite Colombian was shown red in injury time, this match provided many of the great MLS Timbers moments for fans,despite it coming during a time when Spencer’s coat was, to borrow a Scottish phrase, on a shoogly peg.

So, John Spencer won this battle, despite having already lost the war. If nothing else, he went down fighting, and took down the nouveau douche lot from up the road on the way.

This Was Not In The Script

30 March 2013, Colorado Rapids 2-0 Portland Timbers

Fifty minutes in, the Timbers were in a distressingly familiar position – they were losing.

That had been the case at this point in the previous three matches (1-3 vs New York, 0-1 vs Montreal, 0-1 vs Seattle) but they could take some heart from coming back late in two of those matches to grab a couple of points, losing only to Montreal having still mounted a fightback.

Caleb Porter’s arrival had certainly brought goals, but far too many of them were at the wrong end. With 50 minutes gone in Colorado, the Timbers had been outscored 5-8 in a little under 4 games, with the home doubleheader against New York and Montreal accounting for 5 out of the 8 goals against. The introduction of Jack Jewsbury as the deepest lying member of a three man central midfield in Seattle had seen the hosts held a 1-1 draw, with Jack sweeping up behind Diego Chara and Will Johnson. Those three remained in place for the trip to play the Rapids, with the defence patched up by replacing Mikael Silvestre with David Horst.

Fast forward to fifty minutes in and the Timbers were two goals down and had been outshot by 11-3.

The charge of the white brigade was led by The Captain who headed home Ryan Johnson’s cross, Johnson-to-Johnson resuscitation. Will’s header halved the deficit before the hour was out, then a corner in the Rapids box with 20 minutes to go earned Portland a handball call; there was never any doubt that The Captain would take care of the penalty himself.

Though Portland would have to content themselves with another hard-earned point on the road, unable to find the killer third goal, the way the team fought back in these two road games set the tone for the season to come: 2013, the year where the final whistle was merely a minor inconvenience that got in the way of a Timbers win now and then.

Jewsbury took up his place at right-back in the next match, and Wallace was restored to the starting line-up as the Timbers record their first win, and then the second, and the third…

Colorado has never been an easy place to go to, and the Timbers have had some real nightmares there, so 2-0 down with 40 minutes to play would have signalled game over in previous years, but they fought back and put another point on the board. Changed days.

France provided a great example of the value of a strong home second leg performance, overturning a two-goal lead to qualify for the World Cup. The Timbers won six of their regular season games by at least two goals, almost half, and would’ve added a couple more big wins against Seattle for late rallies and lapses. They’ve fought back time and time again in the past and there is no reason to think they won’t do so here.

Mirriam Webster defines belief as “a feeling of trust in the worth or ability of someone” and that pretty well sums up my feeling going in the game. I believe because I trust in every guy that takes the field on Sunday night to put in a performance that is worthy of the honor of playing for this club, in this town. My belief isn’t blind faith in happy endings; RSL are a really good team and they hold the upper hand going into the game, so I don’t expect a fairytale end as much as I hope for it. It may happen, there is certainly a chance of that because we have the ability on and off the pitch to make it happen, but if it doesn’t, my belief is unshakable that every single person in attendance will be in no doubt that there was no more that this team could do and they had already achieved more than most could’ve dared to dream for.

Six Degrees – Getting Old

Man, I’ve been crazy-busy these last few days, and somehow Kevin Alexander got his column out before I did. Which is fine, I say. He’s provided you the calm, considered, and logical analysis. Now I’m here to bring you the TRUTH.

1) Clearly, when you have a 2-2 tie, there must be somebody to blame. Obviously, in this case, we can blame the Chicago groundskeepers. Did you see the goalposts? They were GIGANTIC! They must have been three feet across. How else could we hit the woodwork twice in the first 30 seconds? Three times in the first four minutes? And Valeri’s goal was off the post, too. Ridiculous! Who do they think they’re fooling? Clearly, these posts were thicker than regulation. Don’t believe me? Did you see the Chicago groundskeepers dragging that big-ass goal to the opposite end at halftime? Hmm? Did you? I’ve scoured the internet and there is no video showing they DIDN’T switch the goals. That’s all the proof I need. Conspiracy, I say! Conspiracy!

I’ve already contacted the league commissioner. He says he’ll look into it.

2) Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s get serious. These ties are getting old, aren’t they? Yes, it’s wonderful that we haven’t lost on the road. Yes, it’s great that we can “learn a lesson,” as Coach Porter says, and still get a point on the road. Yes, yes, and yes again. But generally, teams make the playoffs because they WIN games. We’re sort of the opposite. We’re going to make the playoff by not losing. Am I complaining? I’m not sure. I’m really not. The “not losing” thing is great. But honestly, this is getting a little weird.

Love the spirit, fellas. Love the “refuse to lose” spirit. Now, let’s turn it up a notch. “Refuse to lose or tie” isn’t nearly as catchy, but let’s try it anyway. Three points from here on, what do you say?

3) That being said, you do realize we were missing four starters, right? 36% of our starting lineup was off playing for various national teams. How did the subs do? Pretty good, actually. At forward, Freddy Piquionne was everything we could ask for, actually. Two assists, good work rate all night. If he scores a couple goals before Ryan Johnson comes back, Coach Porter’s going to have a tough decision to make.

Ben Zemanski? I like him. Yes, his goal was super, but I liked him even without the goal. He’s fast, he’s disruptive, he’s always in the middle of things. Reminds me of Diego Chara. I don’t think Rodney Freakin’ Wallace’s starting spot is in danger, though.

Nor is Donovan Ricketts’s. Milos Kocic was only okay in goal, I thought. He couldn’t do a thing about that free kick goal. It was a perfect shot. But the other goal? Super-hard to tell what happened there, with bodies flying all over. Did Kocic drop it? Or was it knocked out of his hands? I dunno, but I do know this …

4) … I’ve just about had it with Andrew Jean-Baptiste. Not only will Futty Danso be starting the moment he steps off the plane from Gambia, it’s possible Jean-Baptiste will lose his job before then. To McKenzie, maybe? To Tucker-Gangnes? To me? I don’t know. But I know that every single game, Beast does something that scares the hell out of me. He’s either wrestling someone in the box or missing an assignment or running into the goalie. And do you remember how Coach was screaming at him during that US Open Cup game versus Wilmington? I think Beast’s position as a starter is in serious jeopardy. If anyone out there can tell me how I’m wrong and how Beast is a lot better than I realize, I’d love to hear it. Educate me.

5) A lot of people are screaming about how the Timbers fell apart as soon as Diego Valeri came out of the game, and I’m not going to contradict that. But I’m not sure we can complain too much, and here’s why: Caleb Porter’s not just managing the game, he’s managing the entire season. He knows we’ve got a ton of games coming up – important games, too – so he’s figuring out who needs rest, who needs to play. He’s worried about Valeri’s bad hamstring. He’s wondering if the international call-ups will be exhausted when they come back. He’s wondering who’ll be the next central defender to blow out their knee. So I can forgive him taking Valeri out of the game early. He’ll probably do the same with some other players in the next couple weeks. We’ve got a tough stretch ahead. Coach is thinking long-term.

6) So how do the next few weeks turn out? Well, obviously all my predictions have come true this year, so I’ll drop a few more on you. Feel free to call your bookie right away.

I think we crush Tampa Bay in tomorrow’s US Open Cup match. Our boys have a bad taste in their mouths. Tampa will pay the price.

Then a quick turnaround for a Saturday game and I think we eke out a tie versus Dallas. We’re at home, but Dallas is leading the league and we’ll be tired and undermanned. So, yes, another damn tie. Curse them.

And then ANOTHER quick turnaround for a Wednesday game against the LA Galaxy. We’ll still be tired and undermanned, only this time we’ll be in Los Angeles. To make it even tougher, we don’t know if we’ll be playing Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. One week, LA is an overwhelming force. The next week, they’re getting shut out. And so, for my prediction, I fall back to the easy choice. A tie. Another damn tie.

It’s getting old, fellas.

Timbers Draw In Chicago: Thrown Away

It was very much a good news, bad news scenario for Portland Timbers after their trip to Chicago ended in a 2-2 draw.

Good News: the unbeaten streak continues! Bad News: we threw away a lead against a team that had failed to get anything from being two goals down in their last fifteen attempts, stretching back over two years.

Good News: seriously, 12 games unbeaten! And 3rd in the West ahead of Seattle and LA. Bad News: only two wins in the last six, and those were against each conference’s early-season whipping boys, and of the four draws, we’ve twice gone into the last 15 minutes in winning positions and dropped points.

Good News: Diego Valeri was back, he scored, had a hand in our second and was pretty, pretty good. Bad News: he went off, our night went to shit and we ended up on the losing end of a 2-2 draw.

In the aftermath, there was a seeming consensus on twitter that Caleb Porter had blown it by taking of Valeri after 67 minutes, with the Timbers 2-0 up.

There is no doubt that the fact the team lost their lead when Valeri wasn’t on is worth bringing up as the figures would seem to support the idea that when Diego starts, you take him off at your peril.

If you exclude the first few matches, which Valeri started and finished, and the Houston match which he only left due to injury, Diego has started seven and been subbed off four times. In those matches the team’s aggregate scores are 12-4 when Valeri is on the field, and 0-4 with him off.

This ignores the DC game that Valeri didn’t play in, of course, and weirdly enough the Timbers have won both games the playmaker has sat out entirely having beaten San Jose 1-0 earlier in the year.

You would expect Valeri’s withdrawal, given how he is often the creative pivot in the team, to cause a drop off in attacking potency and that is indicated by the team failing to score once in the 64 minutes Valeri has sat on the bench despite averaging a goal every 47 minutes or so when he’s on the field.

The surprise is how poorly the team defend with him off the field. They’ve conceded the same number of goals in those 64 minutes as they had in the other 566, though I doubt there is any direct link between Valeri going off and our defence losing their way.

Porter has shown himself very adept at using subs, a skill that got him out trouble early on in the year when the Timbers seemed to start every game a goal behind. To put Porter’s record in context, John Spencer’s “W-L” record after the first sub was 11-21, Gavin Wilkinson’s was 4-4, and Porter is 6-2.

However, in the last few matches his ability to work some magic from the bench when it’s needed has waned.

10GAMES CP (2)

Having a depleted squad, be it due to injuries, suspensions or international duty, limits a coaches ability to make a positive impact from the bench, and when the squad gets thin, that’s when you may look more to consolidate rather than put teams to the sword. Of the last four times the team has led when Porter has made his first change, three of the matches have finished with no further goals being scored for either side.

Chicago are the first team since the San Jose game to “beat” the Timbers post-sub, and yes, Valeri went off after scoring then too. Since the San Jose game the Timbers have been outscored 4-5 after the first substitution has been made, having “won” 6-2 over the first five games, but I see that as a product of a coach adjusting to a different squad dynamic over the past few matches than a coach who’s lost his touch. He’s managed to put a starting XI together that’s been in a losing position only once in the last nine games, and that was an injury-enforced change, so the Timbers are getting into good positions and generally if they can do that, Porter mostly calls it right to keep it that way.

The problem with taking Valeri off, and one potential reason for the side’s relatively poor showing after his removal, is that we don’t have anyone of his ability to fill the void he leaves. Perhaps Nagbe could, one day, but for now he’s not that guy, and without Valeri we start to retain less of the ball out of our half and that puts more pressure on the defence.

That’s what we saw in this game as the Fire came out firing, and got the goals that they no doubt feel they deserved or all their effort. That’s what those who railed against Porter’s substitution choice saw. The consensus seemed to be that everything had been going well up until then, and then Porter spencered it by bringing off Valeri.

The problem I have with this is, and this where I’ll respectfully disagree with the coach below and likely most other fans, is that we were already pretty poor before Valeri went off.

With the way we were playing, there was absolutely no reason for that team to get a goal. They got a goal out of nothing. It wasn’t like they had a flow or anything. It popped up in a moment, and we fell asleep.

Now, while I don’t disagree that the goal, the events that led directly to Magee making it 2-1, “popped up in a moment” when we had fallen asleep, but I don’t agree it came out of nothing. ***

For all we were stroking the ball around (somewhat) nicely and, in our mind, controlling the pace of the game, Chicago weren’t paying attention. They missed the lesson when Zemanski scored and just kept doing what they’d been doing, which was pressing hard and upping their tempo.

In the first half, the Timbers averaged 5 passes per minute, to Chicago’s 3 as they outworked and outplayed their hosts. By the time Valeri went off that situation had turned around entirely and our patient, deliberate play was being disrupted by a fired up Chicago. Our passing accuracy had dropped from 83% to 63% and the problem was that weren’t getting our attacking players involved enough because the Fire were pressing, or we were just plain sloppy and caught on our heels at times.


It’s true that Valeri had two shots at goal in the second half, equalling the entire team’s tally after he went off, and of his four passes, one led to the Timbers’ 2nd goal, but the problem is that he only had four passing opportunities in over 20 minutes of play. His minutes per pass rate had gone from 2.4 to 5.4 before he went off, and having Valeri making passes every five minutes is not how to get the best out of him.

By taking off Valeri, we were losing a lot of our attacking threat, but we were 2-0 up at the time and clearly Porter felt all was well. Can’t really blame him, and really the change makes perfect sense when you consider that Valeri is coming back from an injury, and we have a big week ahead. My problem isn’t with taking off Valeri, it’s that the change wasn’t bold enough.

A lot of our play was directed towards the flanks, which allowed Chicago to press hard out wide and force turnovers from which to launch attacks.

Fire tackling
Fire tackling
Fire passing
Fire passing

The Timbers were warned a couple of times in the first couple of minutes of the second half as Magee’s movement and Jewsbury getting caught doing a dragback at the corner of the box. The Fire pressed harder, sometimes questionably so, but they also pressed higher and Magee proved a real handful with his play both on and off the ball.

In the first half, the Timbers pressing was very well organised and it snuffed out much of Chicago’s threat, but in the second half it wasn’t as effective.

PT 1H Mid Press

PT Midfield Press 2H

Meanwhile Chicago were doing a better job of closing down the space in front of the defence, and denying the Timbers space and time there.

Chic 2H Shutdown

In general terms, the triumverate of Zemanski, Chara and Johnson did well and they rotated duties very nicely, such that if I’m Darlington Nagbe, I’m maybe a little worried about what Rodney Wallace’s return from international duty means. For much of the game, Zemanski was the deeper of the three, often dropping between Kah and Jean-Baptiste to help build from the back.

PT Zemanski CB

Zemanski did his chances of starting again no harm when he did move forward and was rewarded with a goal which was a thing of beauty.

Little surprise it came from Valeri being involved, his previous touches in the second half being a pass that led to his own shot at goal, and equally, given how tight the Fire were keeping it through the middle, it came from springing Piquionne in down the flanks.

timbers goal 2

Zemanski’s finish really was exquisite, and at that point it really did seem like it would break the Fire’s spirit and kill of the fightback before it really got going.

But the home side kept on pressing, getting the ball forward and drawing set-pieces, and throwing the ball into the box.

Well, we went up 2-0, and to be honest with you, it looked like it was going to be three or four

In all honesty, at the time I was worried about how the half was playing out and I’m struggling to see where Porter gets the 3 or 4 goals from, unless he’s referring to chances in the first half cos in the second, if you were out of the room when Zemanski scored, or blinked during Valeri’s tame effort from distance, you don’t see the Timbers doing much to threaten Chicago’s goal. You could say Kocic wasn’t really troubled by all this possession and increased tempo, but all it would take is a slip here or a slice of bad luck there and suddenly it’s 2-1 and all that pressure is going to start making people a little jumpy.

There’s a good chance that if Kocic scoops up the ball and holds it, rather that it spilling to Magee, that the Timbers weather the storm and Zizzo’s pace and width are able to stretch and hurt a tiring Fire defence in the last 15-20 minutes. Games can swing on such moments.

AJB PushNow, I won’t make the case the AJB got a nudge in the back that sent him into Kocic, who then spilled it at Magee’s feet for that first goal because, hey, it’s a contact sport after all and if you rely on refs getting it right 100% of time, you’re going to be disappointed 100% of the time. Still, maybe someone will make that case here.

AJB TackleEqually, I don’t see the point in arguing that Jean-Baptiste won the ball from Magee, whose “foul” led to the free kick that made it level because when a player reaches in like that, it’s left to the referee’s interpretation, and I refer you to the stats above for how that will work out for you.

The fact is that it’s easy to lay blame for this drawtastrophe at the doors of Caleb Porter for blowing the sub, or the ref for being a ref. I’m sure these factors made a difference, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The Timbers didn’t drop points because Diego Valeri was taken off, but because Caleb Porter misread the match and didn’t make the right kind of change.

To be fair to the coach though, his hands were tied. Four players off on international duty to add to an injury list meant that Porter didn’t really have the tools at his disposal to change the game when it began to slip away from him.

We really missed Rodney Wallace, whose presence would’ve offered more than Nagbe and Zizzo combined, and without Ryan Johnson available, Porter probably kept Piquionne on a good 10 or 15 minutes longer than he’d have liked. His reluctance to bring on Valencia is understandable in that the youngster is much more mercurial presence than Piquionne, and when the team need someone who can hold up the ball in attack to relieve pressure, you stick with the guy who is handing out masterclasses in doing just that right now. Valencia is stuck in the margins for now, though I’d expect he’ll have a second chance to shine against Tampa. I just hope it is as an attacker than in midfield.

The Timbers Front Three
The Timbers Front Three
Zizzo tried his best, and got involved, but he’s not Valeri, and the methadone is never as good as the real stuff. His presence, rather than give us a good diagonal outball and keep the Fire defence pinned back a little, unsettled the balance of the front three as big gaps opened up between the all.

The tight interplay and close movement and understanding between the front three, with support from behind, that is a big part of why the Timbers have been so successful in attack this year.

PT Movement Creating Opportunity

With a key, arguably THE key, part of that attack on the field, it suffered and the Fire were able to force pressure under it told. Even a late chance which came off Kah’s surprised right foot from a Will Johnson free-kick, and could’ve grabbed all three points wouldn’t have masked a second half performance that left us hoping for such a last gasp effort in the first place.

The sky isn’t falling though. Bad news: it’s one of those draws that feels like a defeat. Good news: we went to Chicago and outplayed them for 45 minutes with at least six first team players unavailable and were a few inches from coming away with all three points.

It’s a huge fortnight ahead, with three of four games at home, and a trip to play the Galaxy. The US Open Cup match perhaps isn’t the ideal timing with Dallas and LA next up in the league, so we will get a better look at just how deep Porter’s squad really is, and it’s a brave man who backs against Portland when they’re still grinding out results on the road with a half a team missing.

Good News: we’re still not Seattle. Bad News: seriously, there is no bad news there.

Keep the faith, and stay the course.

Accentuate The Positive

Sunday night saw the Timbers battle to a 2-1 victory against Chicago Fire, a victory that ended a run of three matches without a win and over 7 hours without a Timbers player scoring a goal. It’s also the third match in a row that the Timbers have been unbeaten at home and kept a 100% record against the Fire intact.

With Jack Jewsbury out thanks to injury, it meant a start at right back for Mike Chabala. Futty Danso was a doubt for the match after his late game injury in the Houston match, but the MLS disciplinary committee took the decision out of the clubs hands by banning the Gambian for accidentally bumping the back Caleb Carr’s neck with his arm. If only Futty had kicked him square in the face instead as that doesn’t draw any sanctions, apparently.

Eric Brunner returned to his spot in the centre of defence, and those two enforced changes apart, it was the same team that drew in Texas that would face the Fire.

Again, what looked like 4-4-2 on paper played much more like a 4-1-3-1-1 as Palmer sat deeper, and Nagbe frequently dropped off the front line.

The Timbers knew their new-found defensive solidity would be tested against the speed and interplay of the Fire attack, but once more the team proved (largely) equal to the task.

Kris Boyd, for so long an isolated and frustrated figure against Houston, was much more involved this time round, and his early header from a Chabala throw-in produced a great stop from the Chicago keeper.

Indeed, it was from dead ball situations that the Timbers carved out their best chances on goal. The opening strike came from a corner, headed back across goal from Mosquera and skited into the path of Eric Brunner by Boyd, for the defender to score.

Relief was palpable as the long goal drought ended, but some things never seem to change, and after missing a couple of half chances, some sloppy defensive play allowed the Fire equalise.

While some measure of credit has to go to Pappa for the pass, the fact is it was another goal lost where the Timbers were undone as much by themselves as anyone else. Smith sclaffed his clearance, but all was still not lost had Palmer not gone to sleep and allowed Anibaba to get the space he needed to finish well.

There’s also the issue of three Timbers players huddled right in front of goal, which none of them awake to the through pass either. This is just poor alertness and concentration.

The team had almost come a cropper just prior to the goal when a corner was cleared to the edge of the box, before being worked back into to Pardo who was unmarked right in front of goal.

Fortunately for the Timbers, Troy Perkins came to the rescue once more, but if the chance had been a defensive wake-up call, it was one the Timbers failed to heed minutes later.

I thought Palmer had a decent game last week, but I can’t say the same here. While he wasn’t bad by any means, he is prone to lapses in concentration like the above and he seemed to drift out of the game as it went on.

In the second half he was a largely peripheral figure as he failed to impose himself on the game in the way that, for example, Diego Chara did, and does on a regular basis.

It will be interesting to see what John Spencer does when Jack Jewsbury is fit once more (presumably next week). Will Jack come in (as I assume he will) for Chabala or Palmer? My suspicion is that Chabala will sit, with Jack in again at right back.

There really is not much between Jack and Chabala at right back. Both have similar pass success rates, with Chabala perhaps a little more likely to get the ball forward than Jack. The two big differences I can pick between the two are that Chabala is a smarter full back than Jack, and his intensity is greater.

The reason I say Chabala is smarter is that I always feel he has a better understanding with the man in front of him than Jewsbury does. Despite the coach’s insistance that full back is the “easiest position to play” – something Jonathan Wilson might disagree with – the fact is that it’s not that simple – just ask Lovel Palmer, Jeremy Hall or Rodney Wallace. Chabala fits in much more naturally in the role, and his instinct of when to step up, or drop back is much more honed than Jewsbury’s, who often seemed to need that extra half-second or so to think about what he should be doing.

Chabala’s intensity was exmplemified by the little tête-à-tête with Nyarko just before half time. Chabala brings much more of a terrier mentality to the role than Jewsbury’s more measured, hands-off approach.

Both of these factors give Chabala a much stronger presence in the role than Jewsbury’s had so far. Spencer has already stated that when fit, Jewsbury will play which could, perhaps should, put Palmer’s place under threat.

If Jack’s place in the team truly is inviolate, then it would make sense to at least fit him in in his natural position, and a role he’s shown himself more comfortable in. We wouldn’t want square pegs in round holes, would we?

Of course, given the team’s victory this week, perhaps Spencer will bench the club captain and stick with the same XI, which would also be tough on Futty Danso who had started to form a formidable partnership with Mosquera, only to see Brunner slip back into the role and score.

Of course, I’m just a hopeless romantic who’d like to see us go to 3 at the back, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

The half brought another line-up change, with the largely ineffectual Franck Songo’o replaced by Sal Zizzo. Songo’o is a player I still haven’t got a handle on. He shows some really nice touches, and good tricks, but he still, for me, hasn’t offered enough final product. Step overs and jinks are all well and good, but if you end up getting robbed of possession or your final pass is weak, it’s all for nothing. I can’t shake the lingering sense than Franck Songo’o plays for Franck Songo’o first, and the Timbers second. I could be being harsh on him there though. Maybe it’s my ingrained Scottish suspicion of flashy players showing…

Zizzo’s bag of tricks is certainly a lot lighter but he offers a directness that the team were lacking. Songo’o will look to short, quick touches, bringing the ball inside and looking to beat a man or thread the ball through the eye of a needle; Zizzo will take one touch, knock it past his man and go round him in his bloody-minded desire to hit the byline and provide service to the strikers.

Zizzo’s introduction saw the whole flow of the Timbers play change.

Much of the Timbers first half play was focussed down the left hand side, where Rodney Wallace was putting in a much stronger shift than he had in the previous match. His defensive work was much more focussed and he and Smith are starting to build a good understanding down the flank.

With Kalif Alhassan on the bench, now is the time for Wallace to firmly stake his claim to the left midfield role, and while he could do with a better end result for his work, he won’t do his chances any harm if he can keep up this level of play.

With Zizzo on the pitch, the balance of play shifted to the right wing, and his direct running and pace caused the Fire backline all manner of headache.

In the first half, the four tackles down the Timbers right-wing were all successful, from a Fire perspective. The situation changed somewhat after the break as the foul count rose.

Given that I just wrote a blog where I was largely critical of Spencer, it’s only right that I give him the credit for his changes in this match. Recognising that the Timbers were playing much of the game in front of the Fire defence, his introduction of Zizzo gave them a ball in behind, and someone who would run at them and stretch that backline.

Jorge Perlaza came on for Nagbe later on, for much the same reason. Perlaza’s running and harrying would keep the Fire wary at a time when the Timbers were defending a lead when Logan Pause turned home Boyd’s flick from a Sal Zizzo corner shortly after the restart.

Nagbe has cut a lonely figure these past couple of weeks. He’s not getting involved in the way he was early in the season, and when he does have the ball he isn’t the same exciting presence. Where at the start of the season, he’d run at defenders, get them unbalanced and look to get a shot away, recently he’s been more reluctant to go for the jugular and is instead looking to pass it off.

It could be that’s what he’s been told to do, or that’s he’s just not comfortable in the role he’s being asked to play, but to me he’s looking a bit tired, or low in confidence. A rest may be the best thing for him – it’s only his second year in MLS and young players will blow hot and cold.

Perlaza showed great energy in his short spell on the pitch, and helped out in the late game defence with good tracking and harrying.

The way the field seemed to open up for the opposition would’ve had some Timbers fans chewing their nails down to the quick, but Perlaza did well to recognise the threat and get back to fill in and get a block in. But for a cynical foul on the breakaway, Zizzo would’ve been clean through as the wide man again showed what a valuable asset his pace could be.

Despite a great deal of late pressure, the Fire failed to really trouble Troy Perkins’ goal, and that was thanks to some more good defensive work from the Timbers.

Compared to the Houston match, you can see that the Timbers were pressing higher up the pitch. The backline has stepped up, and the second line had also moved further up the pitched. Especially encouraging is a third line half way up the pitch as the Timbers sought to press high and force the Fire into mistakes before they could even get into dangerous areas.

While the lack of open-play chances is still concerning, the Timbers still ground out a win here. When your attack isn’t quite hitting top gear, exploiting set plays is more important than ever. Delivery has improved – Songo’o and Zizzo delivered great corners that lead to both goals – and players are making runs and movements in the box with much more intent.

Players are starting to return to the fold from injury, with Zizzo having an impact in the last two matches from the bench, and Alhassan now making the bench. It would be interesting to see these two playing the wide roles in future, though Zizzo’s history with the club last year suggests that Spencer perhaps sees him more as an impact sub late in the game, using his pace and width to stretch and get in behind tiring defences. I can’t really argue with that, thought I do think that Zizzo has earned strong starting consideration at the very least.

It’s also nice to see the Timbers push back when challenged physically. There was a time when this team could be bullied by other teams, but there’s been a recent shift towards giving every bit as good as they get lately, and indeed it was the Fire players who spent most of the game falling dramatically to the turf in an attempt to hoodwink the referee, who was switched on enough to book a particularly egregious example late in the match.

It was also good to see Boyd more involved in the play as he seemed to have the measure of his opponents in the Fire defence. He had a hand in both goals for the Timbers, provided the cross for Chance Myers to score an own goal in the Sporting KC match, and scored the last open play goal against LA. Crucial, much?

Next up is Vancouver Whitecaps as the Timbers kick-off their Cascadia Cup campaign. The Whitecaps have a number of attacking dangers that it will be vital the Timbers defence have the measure of, but they’ve also shown defensive frailties that can be exploited.

Now off the foot of the Western Conference, the Timbers will hope to keep that momentum going. The football may not be pretty right now, but the points are nice.