Tag Archives: Real Salt Lake

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.

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Six Degrees: So Near

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I) Saturday’s 0-0 result versus Real Salt Lake was a tough draw to take. I really really REALLY wanted the win. Why? Not just because we should ALWAYS win at home. And not just because we needed three points to make the playoffs. (We didn’t. We made the playoffs anyway.) It think this draw frustrated me for two reasons.

One, I’d gotten myself REALLY geeked up about the Supporter’s Shield. I’d spent the past week looking obsessively at the standings, looking at New York’s schedule, Kansas City’s schedule, figuring out what two straight wins meant for us, convincing myself that this was really going to happen.

My second reason for frustration is because Real Salt Lake feels like our boogeyman. Including the US Open game, we’ve played them four times and we still haven’t beaten them. Even worse, they’re the only team this year who’s truly kicked our asses (August 30th’s 4-2 loss in Utah).

It would have been nice to slay our dragon, just once. Just so we’d know we could do it. If we end up facing them in the playoffs, I’ll go into it very anxious. Like I said, they’re our boogeyman.

II) That being said, we’re pretty damn good, too. My main reaction to the game was that these were two very good teams going toe-to-toe. On Saturday night, both teams were organized, skilled, composed, and driven. Portland may not have won, but there’s no doubt we’re a great team, a true contender.

I’ve bitched many times about us starting games slowly, but I was very happy with the attacking spirit Saturday night. We got after it right from the first whistle.

The defense? These guys are unconscious. I told you we don’t lose when Futty plays. Never doubt me again. My powers are legend. I called the Futty thing. I called for Seattle’s epic collapse. Who knows what I’ll call for next? Maybe a functioning national government.

Jokes aside, I’m quite happy with the team right now. We’re getting hot just in time for the playoffs. How will we do there? No telling. This is uncharted territory. But could the pressure of the playoffs be any worse than the pressure of the last month? We’ve had a string of playoff-atmosphere games and we’ve come out on top. Definitely a good omen.

III) Okay, enough of all those happy thoughts. Let’s get back to my specialty, agonizing shifts of emotion followed by snot, tears, drool, and fetal positions.

How many almost-goals did we see Saturday night? It was horrible. Truly a game of inches. I’ve got two almost-goals from Kalif Alhassan, one or two from Valeri, at least one from Trencito, Piquionne’s header in the 90th, then the two in stoppage time from Will Johnson and Sal Zizzo. Maybe there are others I’m forgetting? It seemed like non-stop heartbreak. So agonizingly close all night long.

So, CLEARLY, the man of the match was RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando. The bastard.

But if I were to pick someone in Timbers green, I’d suggest the entire back four. RSL held 56% of the possession, but they got almost no truly dangerous shots. Rimando was the one under siege, not Donovan Ricketts. His shutout came a lot easier, and I think that’s because of the four horsemen in front of him. They’ve been so tremendously solid for the last couple of months, it makes me feel very good about the playoffs. Yes, we’ve been having trouble scoring, but when you don’t give up any goals, you’re guaranteed at least a point.

IV) A few quick player notes.

Donovan Ricketts – How great was he in the 28th minute when Robbie Findlay got behind the defense and was running down a long pass? Ricketts came racing out of goal, then out of the 18-yard box, chested the ball, collected it on his feet, then bopped it upfield like he’s a fullback or something. Beautiful. His best play on an otherwise quiet night.

Jose Valencia – I’ve gotta tell ya, I’m starting to come around on the Little Train. I think he might be turning into the real deal. He’s pretty remarkable with the ball at his feet, isn’t he? Yes, he sometimes tries to much, but oftentimes, he pulls it off. His 42nd minute ball across the face of the goal was glorious and ALMOST found Kalif’s foot. So close, so heartbreaking.

Chris Wingert – Complete Douche. Why do I hate this guy so much? It’s not just that he’s out there mugging our guys, it’s that he does it while looking like a high school popular-kid bully. Or a frat boy. (And, really, what’s the difference?)

V) A few numbers to throw at you.

We’re unbeaten in seven games. Five of those have been shutouts. Not bad form, heading into the playoffs.

We held RSL to zero shots on goal. ZERO. That’s the first time we’ve done that in 101 games as an MLS side.

Last year, we had 34 points for the entire season. This year, we had 38 points AT HOME. Aww yeah…

Finally, I have not given up on this Supporter’s Shield thing. Here’s what we need: we need a loss from both NY and SKC. A tie would be good enough from LA. But all of these scenarios require a Timbers win against Chivas. Three points, nothing less. If we win, and NY loses a game, SKC loses a game, and LA loses or ties a game, we win the Shield. We win the damn shield.

I will now begin obsessing about this for the next week.

VI) Last thing. This past week, like many of you, I went online and cast my vote for the Timbers Army 2013 Supporter’s Player of the Year. Also known as “the People’s Champion.” With its oh-so-perfect-looking boxing-style championship belt.

It was a tough decision.

I considered Diego Valeri, who was the perfect conductor for Caleb Porter’s new style of play and who’s in the discussion for MLS Player of the Year. I considered Diego Chara, who’s possibly my favorite Timber, always where you need him, his engine never slowing. I considered Darlington Nagbe, who’s had his best season as a pro, and who seems to have made “the leap.” I considered Donovan Ricketts, who’s only been the best goalkeeper in MLS, who’s got 13 shutouts, and leads the league by a healthy margin in “oh dear Lord, that was going in, he just saved us a goal” plays.

6degreeswilljohnson

But in the end, it was Will Johnson who got my vote, who got everyone else’s votes, and who raised the championship belt Saturday night. I can’t speak for everyone else who voted for him, but for me it came down to the change in this team’s attitude. The 2013 Portland Timbers absolutely REFUSE to lose. When we’re down a goal, we turn up the intensity to almost homicidal levels. And if we get a goal to draw even, we don’t celebrate. We grab the ball out of the net and RACE back to the center line, eager to get started on scoring the go-ahead goal. Losses are unacceptable. Draws aren’t good enough. Getting three points is all we care about.

This attitude did not exist twelve months ago, but now, everyone has it. Clearly, Caleb Porter’s the biggest reason for the change, but I couldn’t vote for him, so I voted for the guy who personifies him out on the field. The scrappy gamer whose personal attitude has become the TEAM’S attitude. Who’s always in the ref’s ear, who gets into scraps defending injured teammates, who cracks me up on a regular basis by irritating opponents or mocking inept referees or just basically giving us the “Will Johnson Face.”

I’d congratulate Will on his victory, but I know what he’d say to that. We all do. “We haven’t done anything yet,” he’d say. “There are still a lot of games left to play and we’re gonna keep working hard and staying focused. We won’t be satisfied until we’ve won the whole thing.”

And that’s why we love him. That’s why he’s the People’s Champ.

Six Degrees: Blowout

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1) I feel safe calling Friday night’s 4-2 loss our ugliest game of the year. It’s the first game we lost by more than one goal. I’m not sure if a two-goal loss qualifies as a “blowout,” but that’s certainly what this felt like. It felt like Real Salt Lake did whatever the hell they wanted, and we couldn’t do a thing to stop them.

No surprise, I’ve had a black cloud of gloom following me ever since, but I knew I had to shake it off and bang out this column, so, in an effort to raise my spirits, I did a little research. I checked out last season’s schedule and compared it to this one.

Let me list this year’s “blowout losses.”

    8/30 – RSL 4-2

Now, let me list last year’s “blowout losses.”

    4/14 – LA 3-1
    4/28 – Montreal 2-0
    6/30 – Col 3-0
    7/7 – RSL 3-0
    7/14 – LA 5-3
    7/21 – Dallas 5-0 (ouch!)
    9/5 – Col 3-0
    10/7 – Sea 3-0

Also, last year’s team lost to Chivas three times. Chivas. Three. Times.

Well, I’m suddenly feeling much better about our current struggles. How about you?

2) The TV color man gave an astonishing little factoid Friday night, one that I have since confirmed by looking at lineups from previous games. The fact: since the start of July, Will Johnson and Diego Chara have played together a total of FORTY-FIVE MINUTES. It was the first half at Philly.

Another quick look at the schedule tells us this: on July 1st, our record was 7 wins, 1 loss, and 9 draws. Since then, with the Johnson/Chara partnership in tatters, we’ve got 2 wins, 4 losses, and 3 draws.

There are a thousand variables in our team’s current form and it’s fun to analyze and re-analyze all of them, trying to figure out what’s wrong. But maybe – just maybe – it all comes down to this simple fact: when Will Johnson and Diego Chara play together, we kick ass. When they don’t, we suck.

I’d love it if this was all that was wrong with the Timbers. I have a simple mind. I like simple answers.

3) Having a simple mind, as I watched the game, I didn’t fully understand what I was seeing. Or rather, I knew WHAT it was – a complete domination – I just didn’t understand WHY. Why was RSL making us look like a high school team? When RSL had the ball, they did whatever they wanted. When we had it, everything was a struggle. On the other side of the ball, our defense was in a constant state of frantic, overwhelmed recovery. I’m not sure RSL’s back line broke a sweat.

Fortunately, this website has a writer whose mind ISN’T so simple. If you haven’t read Kevin Alexander’s article yet, do so now – here’s the link – because he breaks it down in a systematic way, putting into words and pictures the steaming pile of feces that was Friday night’s game.

All of it makes me wonder if Caleb Porter and his staff might be switching things up a bit too much lately. Sure, they’ve had to plug in a non-stop stream of replacements, but that doesn’t explain how lost our attackers looked last night. Do we need our core group of attackers – Valeri, Nagbe, Wallace, and Ryan Johnson – to go through some remedial instruction? Or do they simply need Will Johnson and Diego Chara tag-teaming it behind them? Is the recent addition of Alvas Powell causing things to go awry on the right side? Hard to say, but I hope we can figure things out, because our offense looks awful. Friday night’s two goals were both fairly flukey and, beyond them, we didn’t threaten at all.

4) Watching Friday night’s referee, Baldomero Toledo, I was reminded of an old expression about schoolteachers. “If one kid fails a test, it’s the kid’s fault. If fifteen kids fail the test, it’s the teacher’s fault.”

In this situation, I’d say, if one player gets booked, it’s the player’s fault. If EVERY player gets booked, it’s the referee’s fault.

It got so bad last night, it seemed like Toledo was carding people just because he didn’t know what else to do. If there was a situation on the field, and he didn’t know exactly what happened, but he was pretty sure SOMETHING happened, he’d just hand out a couple bookings. I mean, somebody must have done something, right?

The best moment of the night was when Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Joao Plata shook hands and Toledo immediately gave them yellows. I’m pretty sure he carded them for shaking hands. Which he should, of course. We can’t have a bunch of hand-shakers running around out there, ruining our game.

5) A few very quick player notes.

Darlington Nagbe – Dear Lord, man. That goal was SICK.

Donovan Ricketts – You still look a little stiff, but there was nothing you could do about those first couple of goals. They were so perfectly placed, they grazed the post.

Sal Zizzo – When Train’s rocket blast didn’t go in, I automatically assumed it was just more bad luck for the Timbers. Thanks for stepping up and sinking that rebound. It’s good to have you back.

Javier Morales (RSL) – Your little bicycle kick was cool and all, but honestly, man, there wasn’t a Timber within 15 feet of you. You could’ve set up a lawn chair and had drinks, you were so open.

6) Okay, I’m gonna end this column with some extremely questionable advice for Caleb Porter. Our next two games are Toronto at home and Chivas away. We can beat these teams with our reserve squad, so I say we rest EVERYBODY. Give the regulars a couple weeks off. Let Nagbe and Valeri go off to their Fortress of Solitude, or wherever it is they go, so they can recharge their superpowers. Send Will Johnson and Diego Chara to Vegas, so they can plan out some kind of “buddy movie” over blackjack and all-you-can-eat buffets. Let Donovan Ricketts spend the next two weeks in the trainer’s room, slowly moving back and forth from the hot tub to the massage table, reggae on the stereo and a Red Stripe beer in his gigantic hand.

Then when Colorado comes to the house of pane on 9/20, we’ll be healthy, we’ll be rested, we’ll have Horst and Dike on the bench, and we’ll be ready to start an end-of-the-year winning streak.

I’m a simple man, so I’ll cling to this simple belief: put Will Johnson and Diego Chara on the field together and we cannot be stopped.

Space, The Final Frontier

space

These are the voyages of the starship Timbers FC. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new (pond)life and new (un)civiliz(ed douchebags)ations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

That has been stuck in my head because I watched Star Trek into Darkness just recently (it was allright, I guess) but also because it provides a tenuous link to what has prompted me to write after watching the Timbers go down 4-2 in Utah.

Space.

mptwitterThe referee changing/destroying the game aside, it was the use of space that was the great difference in the teams last night. RSL used it well and exploited it, where the Timbers were often adrift in attack, unable to get any flow or rhythm to their play where they needed it most.

Which isn’t to diminish those other factors. It’s important after a defeat to seperate the excuses from the facts. The fact is that the Timbers are missing key players in an already small trusted squad, and that’s going to tell when you face a top side in their own yard, which isn’t to excuse a defeat, but merely give context to a result that could otherwise be taken as a source for despair.

Defence carries the most obvious scars, with spellcheck-botherer Rauwshan McKenzie making his first MLS start for the Timbers alongside Andrew Jean-Baptiste. This left Michael Harrington as the elder statesman of the back four at the princely age of 27, and that McKenzie (26) has started fewer than thirty times in five and a half years in MLS shows how badly the Timbers miss the old heads of Silvestre, Jewsbury and, yes, Kah.

He may be a hothead, but that pulls focus from the 95% of his game that’s rock solid and Jean-Baptiste seems to trust him which takes a lot of weight off his shoulders to be the main man at the back.

Futty is also on his way back into contention, which is probably bad news for McKenzie who may have to wait a bit long to get over the game starts mark.

It’s been a big year for AJB, playing a part in all but two matches this year in the league. He’s started sixteen of the last seventeen, providing on constant in the heart of defence. He’s a better, bigger player now than he was at the start of the year, but I wonder if it may be time to give him a rest. I felt at times he missed an old head alongside him to rein him in when needed, and there have been other instances where he’s tried to do too much on his own. A break might freshen him up for a run-in that is as tough as you could hope to avoid.

Porter’s magic touch can only go so far, and his previous trick of throwing a completely untested pairing into the mix and having it work, somehow, didn’t spark here. Our makeshift team wasn’t a match for Jason Kreis’ fizzing Salt Lake side. As an aside, I’m not sure what his ambitions may be but there’s surely a higher level than MLS for Kreis to make his mark in.

In many ways they are the team we want to be, and why not mould yourself after them? For me, going into this match, RSL were, and are, the best team in the league and I saw a lot in their play that is very like the play we saw from Portland when mostly-everyone was fresh. Built around a talented and talismanic Argentinian in offense, with a tight-knit core of “you’d love them if they were your guy” types and underrated gems aond exciting young talent bubbling over.

Real Close

They got their game going, with the space between attackers kept to a minimum. Their passing was crisp and fluid, but crucially it was with purpose and almost supernatural accuracy that was matched by the final, killer, touch.

The Timbers were punished by a team that not only created chances, but took them so precisely out of Ricketts reach that I’m pretty sure the big man himself, or a member of the Timbers coaching team will have paced out that goal to make sure that it wasn’t actually a few inches over regulation.

I also suspect if those same chances were falling to Ryan Johnson, that’s our tale; a hard luck story. The Jamaican striker is on a bit of a drought, by his own high standards.

It’s the first time since May that he has gone on a three game starting run without scoring, and back then a convenient international break allowed the Timbers to freshen up in attack. Valencia did well, considering the team were down to ten men, and his vicious shot led to the Timbers second of the night when Nick Rimando wasn’t in the mood for dealing with that kinda shit tonight.

And who’s that over there, oh right it’s Bright F-ing Dike. So there’s that.

Timbers Distant

Johnson never really felt like a part of the game in the way that the RLS attackers were and that was because the Timbers didn’t have the tight movement between attackers. The distances were too great so any ball that went up there was immediately contested in 1-on-1’s, never allowing us to overload the attack to our advantage because we’d general lose out or fail to control the play.

realeasydefending

Johnson’s desire to run the channels meant that our play in the final third was built around finding a quick ball into space for him to run onto to, or to create space for others with his movement. We never really got the passing quick and crisp enough, and the movement was just a little too late to make RSL sweat too greatly.

It’s little surprise that both goals were something from nothing.

Nagbe took everyone by surprise with a typically Nagbian fuck-this-I’ll-score-then-if-no-one-else-will move. Then Valencia stung the palms of Rimando for Zizzo to follow up on.

It’s kinda interesting, I think, to note that Zizzo announces his return with a goal, albeit little more than a consolation in the end, just as Dike is being rebooted ready to bring some pent-up Autumnal cheer to MLS defences. This pair were the highlight of an often grim interimship, and there’s something about the timing of it all this that makes me wonder if Porter might see if lightning could strike twice there.

What’s been missing, as well as goals, from Johnson’s game has been assists and Zizzo served up a handful in the run last year, with Dike his primary beneficiary.

In many ways the problems that exist with Johnson would, in theory, remain if we played Dike. Dike isn’t going to play like Piquionne, the only guy on the attack on Valeri’s level if you exclude Nagbe on the basis that levels don’t apply in his case, but he’s going to play like Dike.

If Valeri sits for a while, that changes things and perhaps makes room for Zizzo and a change to a system that exloits that. Perhaps we even see Zizzo in at right-back, or exchanging roles up and down the right with Powell.

Toronto are next up, at Jeld- Wen Field and Chivas away follow, and this, quite frankly, should-win double could put six points on the board and restore some confidence in a team that has a chance to avenge the results of this past week in our own backyard before this year is out. They also perhaps afford Porter that breathing-room, while meaning no disrespect, to freshen some and unleash others.

Those games will, ultimately, decide our fate in regards to the postseason. Looking at the table, as I said earlier RSL are my top team, and I put LA and, sadly, Seattle through with them. That leaves ourselves, FC Dallas, Colorado Rapids, Vancouver Whitecaps and San Jose Earthquakes. On reflection, I’d have been quicker listing the teams that are out of contention for those two spots in the West: Chivas USA.

After Toronto (also out of the playoff race in the East) the Timbers play out their year in the West, so the players can sleep in the own bed but it’s unlikely to be comfortable sleeping if they can’t put points on the board in games against our rivals.

There are a lot of six-pointers to come, given how close the race is, but Portland will need to improve on recent form, and quickly, if they are to end the year with the unspoken promise of postseason soccer fulfilled.

We’re this close, and quite frankly, it’ll be a disappointment if we don’t make it now. It’s in our hands, and we’re lucky to have three matches against teams with little to play for. It’s been a long time since we played against a team that ultimately doesn’t look like making the playoffs, and we lost that match in Columbus to a single goal in early July.

A run of eight games against genuine playoff contenders, east and west, has seen Portland scrape nine points off two wins and three draws. We have five more of those kind of games, at least, so getting full points against the other teams is a must.

Caption
The form table makes for uncomfortable reading, with many of our rivals in much better form that us.

Toronto and Chivas back-to-back perhaps affords us the chances to rest guys like AJB and Ryan Johnson, and start to feed guys back in and look to find something that works for who we’ve got right now. There’s no shame with going to places like Seattle and Sandy and coming back with nothing to show for it, but the manner of the latest defeat would be a signal to me that we need to freshen things up a bit.

The other space that I could tie back to my Trek diversion at the start is the space to breath, and to heal. We settle back into a regular weekly schedule, so no more three games in nine days carry on. That helps down the stretch.

We can cry foul every time we’re wronged by officials, on the pitch and off, but ultimately we hold our own fate in our hands with five matches at home, where we’re unbeaten since March.

We host Colorado, LA, Seattle and RSL and we arguably need to win at least two or three of those. Trips to Vancouver and Chivas USA, twice, could bring to an end a horrible run of one point in our last five road trips. That goalless draw against te Union was also our last clean sheet, the fourth in six games at the time.

There’s no doubting the effect of injuries on the team. McKenzie underwhelmed and we’re missing Will Johnson like Chicago Fire communication directors miss points, so it’s good to look ahead and see, in the first half of September at least, a potential for some good news stories.

Dike and Futty are coming back, Horst too, and we live in hope, day-to-day, that good news will come and our Johnson will be restored to its former glory in the hole where we’ve lacked penetration in the last few weeks, or been punished for unwise lunges by seeing red.

We’ve also seen another side of Kalif in the past few games, and he’s been a rare bright spot. I sometimes come off as down on Kalif, but it’s only because there’s clearly so much more to him than he’s shown, consistently at least.

The things about injury crises is they always pass, no matter how long they seem to drag on at the time. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and we’re not alone in facing off against playoff rivals, but if we can hold our nerve there’s no reason why this story has to end before with another tale of nearly-made-it.

#RCTID

Six Degrees: The Passion and the Fury

PASSION


I think I have emotional whiplash. There’s only so much a man can take. Back and forth, back and forth, all night long. Way too much drama. Five goals? That would have been fine. But that sixth one? Too much. Way too much.

So for this column, the “Six Degrees” will actually be “Six Goals” followed by “Six Emotions.” Continue reading Six Degrees: The Passion and the Fury

Portland Timbers kick off the MLS offseason with a flurry of activity

Twitter has been buzzing with anticipation for days and right at the stroke of noon, the Portland Timbers made their first official MLS offseason announcement. Here’s a rundown of the transactions:

* Timbers acquire allocation money (what jersey # will allocation money wear?) and the rights to homegrown player and current Akron Zips defender, Bryan Gallego, from the New York Bulls in exchange for Kosuke Kimura and a 2013 2nd round draft pick.

Rumors of Kimura being sent to the Red Bulls came to light on Sunday afternoon. The rest of this deal though didn’t become clear until the Timbers dropped the press release. Word is the Timbers received over $100,000 in allocation money (not confirmed) along with a promising defender who is very familiar with incoming coach Caleb Porter. It remains to be seen whether Gallego, who will turn 20 in March, will forego returning to Zips for his junior year. To get anything promising in return for Kimura who, despite his love for the badge, really struggled from day one with Portland, is a positive takeaway as far as I’m concerned.

 * Timbers acquire defender Michael Harrington from Sporting KC in exchange for allocation money.

In a league not known for strong fullbacks, Harrington had the unfortunate luck to try and crack a starting lineup with two of the better performers in the league: Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers. Harrington carries a steeper price tag than I would like ($125,000), but if he can solidify a position that’s been weak for the Timbers since coming to MLS, it just might be worth it.

 * Timbers acquire allocation money from the Houston Dynamo in exchange for defender Eric Brunner

This one stings a bit. If there was a guy you could count on to bring it in every match he played it was Eric Brunner. It was a difficult 2012 campaign for Brunner has he spent over three months out of the lineup while recovering from a concussion he suffered in a May match against Vancouver. General Manager Gavin Wilkinson, not always known for his appropriate goodbyes to players, had nothing but praise for Brunner:

“Eric is a great person and quality player, and these types of decisions are never easy. We very much appreciate his service to the club over the past two seasons, both on and off the field. The opportunity in Houston for Eric is one that he is excited about. He is well-liked and will be missed”

* Timbers acquire Will Johnson from Real Salt Lake in exchange for allocation money

The news of this move was broken on Sunday as well, and even with the other news today, this is by far the most exciting of the transactions.

Johnson is one of those players you love to hate — as long as he’s on the other team. Johnson will provide some much-needed tenacity as well as some outstanding skill on the ball. This is clearly a move orchestrated by Caleb Porter, who likely sees Johnson playing a huge role as a winger or attacking center midfielder in his possession-based attack.

While he is a Canadian international, Johnson does not occupy an international slot on the Timbers roster.

* Finally, in other moves

The Timbers declined the options on defenders Lovel Palmer and Steve Purdy. Both will be eligible to participate in the MLS Re-Entry Draft this coming Friday.

It also appears that left back Steven Smith will not be rejoining the team in 2013. Nothing has been announced by the team, but Smith did post this on Twitter:

We’ll have more about the Steven Smith move once it’s officially announced by the Timbers.

Only Four More To Go

This will be a (relatively) short one this week because I didn’t notice my VPN subscription had expired so I can’t rewatch on MLS Live, and I’ll save you my “MLS Live should be available in the UK anyway” rant for this week. Instead, I’ll be relying on the MLS highlights for the few pics I do use and cursing them for not carrying the passages of play I had noted and hoped to talk about. Extended highlights, anyone?

The Timbers made their second trip this season to the heart of Mormonia to face Real Salt Lake after snatching a draw from the jaws of victory against San Jose last time out. The first trip to Rio Tinto in 2012 ended in a 3-0 defeat, and gave owner Merritt Paulson the silver bullet he needed to end John Spencer’s reign of terror(ble football), ushering in a Golden Age of beautiful, free flowing, orgasmic football under our esteemed and benevolent overlord, Gavin Wilkinson.

This second visit also ended in defeat, and three goals scored, but at least this time the Timbers got one of them and, but for the width of the crossbar, they could’ve snatched an, in some ways undeserved, point on the road for the second match on the trot.

The Timbers midfield and defence struggled to come to terms with the movement of Salt Lake’s Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales. It was almost inevitable that it would be the movement of these two that would lead to Real’s first goal.

As Morales picks up the ball (1), the Timbers central midfield two of Wallace and Jewsbury are a little narrow giving space either side to the veteran Argentinian and Tony Beltran (both circled) who has pushed forward.

Espindola will drop off his marker, Horst, and slip into the space between defence and midfield. When he picks up the ball (2), he’s dropped between Wallace and Jewsbury and is then able to turn and run at the space. Morales makes a looping run round the outside and as the Timbers defence gets drawn towards the ball (3), Espindola has the awareness to flick it off to Morales. Jewsbury throws out an arm and tugs back Morales, preventing him getting a shot off or playing in Beltran on the overlap.

From the resulting free-kick, the Timbers make a mess of it. Wallace is positioned as the “runner” – the guy on the edge of the wall whose job it is to charge out and close down the ball the second a touch is taken (or, usually, just before it’s taken – how often do you see free kicks blocked by a guy 5 yards from the ball?).

Rather than charge out, he seems confused by Morales’ little backheel, hesitates and then does a pretty, but ineffective, pirouette. But that’s only part of it. The wall itself parts, allowing Espindola to drive the ball low between Mwanga and Mosquera and into the bottom corner.

Despite Real being the better team, the Timbers did have their chances, but were denied by a combination of good keeping from Rimando, or the final ball just not quite being good enough.

A failure to pick up Morales would once again lead to trouble for Portland later in the first half.

Again, the central two fail to follow Morales, giving him lots of space to work, and it’s his give and go, and then a run inside that leads to the free kick when Jewsbury leaves a foot hanging. There were calls of “dive” from some Timbers fans, but I don’t agree. It was a pretty clear foul, and a really lazy, half-arsed “tackle” from Jewsbury.

This time the wall weren’t to blame as Morales hit a fantastic free kick over the wall and beyond Joe Bendik.

Although both goals came from set plays, it was the Timbers inability to deal with good movement from the Real attack – Morales and Espindola in particular – that were the key. That and Jewsbury having a horror show, and a terrible effort at building a wall.

The second half saw a change from the Timbers with Bright Dike coming on for Steven Smith. Wallace dropped to left back and the team took up more of a 4-4-2 shape.

On the hour mark there was hope for Portland when a fantastic cross from Sal Zizzo was met by the head of Dike and he sent it beyond Rimando for 2-1.

Given this boost, Wilkinson did what any manager would do and took off a defender and put on a more attacking player to try and press for an equaliser.

Oh, did I say he took off a right back, and put Zizzo back there? That is the guy who’d just set up the goal, and wasn’t, isn’t, and most likely never will be, a right back. Meanwhile Jack “I’ve played right back” Jewsbury stayed central, even though we had literally just brought on a central midfielder in Eric Alexander.

Last week, I’d hoped we’d at least bring Alexander on, in order to help retain possession further up the field as we defended a lead. We showed what a good passer of the ball he was against Real, misplacing only 1 of his 15 attempts, making the decision to leave him on the bench against San Jose all the stranger.

With Zizzo at right back, a lot of our threat down the right was neutered, and Wilkinson would complete the job by hooking off Songo’o with a few minutes to go. His replacement, Kalif Alhassan, never really got involved – little surprise when you have all of 8 minutes to make an impact – and, in fact, failed to touch the ball in the final third.

There was, as I mentioned before, that chance for Dike that crashed off the bar. It was, as my wife pointed out, almost the San Jose match in reverse. Once more, it was from Zizzo’s cross and it makes the decision to push him further back all the more odd when you think that we effectively removed this weapon from our arsenal. Dike looked fired up for this after coming on, and the RSL defence didn’t look too sure of how to deal with him so it seemed like the ideal scenario to test them by throwing the ball into the area from wide and letting Dike do what he does best. But we decided not to do that.

I think the move to put Zizzo at right back may be a sign of the management losing faith in Kimura. Kimura came to the Timbers with a “won’t be missed that much on the field” sentiment from Rapids fans that suggested we weren’t exactly bringing in a game changer, but after the trouble the Timbers have had at full-back, someone who could at least do the basics would be a step forward.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anything from Kimura to suggest he’s good enough. His reading of the game is poor, and you won’t go poor by betting against him in 1v1s. He has tons of heart, and there’s no doubting he seems like a great guy, the kind that fans can identify with, but he’s a footballing liability too often. Perhaps there was an injury concern, fatigue issues, but it seems to me that it was a management who wanted to test Zizzo in the role, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is further experimentation at right back before the season is out.

Losing, With Style

Little has changed on the road for Portland since Spencer left. The record under Wilkinson is 2 draws and 5 defeats, compared to Spencer’s 2 draws and 6 defeats. We’re scoring more, which is nice, but conceding more, which isn’t.

Again, a lot was made of possession post-match. “I think the possession stance of this team has changed dramatically from what they were,” said Gavin. It’s certainly true that we’re keeping the ball more since Spencer left – of Wilkinson’s 13 games, we’ve hit 50% or more 8 times, compared to 5 in 17 under Spencer – but of those 13 times we’ve been on top, we’ve won twice.

There may be something to Sigi Schmid’s “our league is a counter-attacking league” quote. Certainly, it seems that the team we have is built for that style of play, unsurprisingly since it was John Spencer that had a big hand in putting the pieces together. In fact, we win almost twice as often when we have less of the ball (29% to 15%) though it’s hard to separate on figures alone which games we’ve set out to counter-attack, and which we’ve simply been beaten back by a better team. Or been shit.

It certainly seems, from looking at the figures (as flawsed as that approach may be) that the team benefit from taking a counter-attacking approach most especially at home. In 18 matches where the Timbers have had equal-or-less possession than their opponents, they’ve lost once – the 3-2 defeat to, appropriately enough, Real Salt Lake earlier this season. Of those 18 matches, the Timbers have won 13. It’s a record worth almost 2.4 points-per-game, or to put it another way, better than any current home record in the league.

By way of contrast, when we’re “in control” of a match at home, that points ratio drops to 0.86, and we’ve won only 3 of 14. On the road, we lose a little over 50% of matches we have less possession in, which isn’t great, but of the 8 road games we’ve been seen more of the ball, we’ve lost 7 and drew only once (Toronto, 2-2).

I think those “philosophical” differences between Paulson and Spencer were, to a large degree, about this style of football. Perhaps seduced by seeing teams like Barcelona and Arsenal, Paulson has thought to himself “I want my team to play like that”. To which, and I’m speculating wildly here, John Spencer might’ve countered with, “not with this lot, you won’t.” Of course, things don’t simply work that way in football and there’s more to play that kind of football than just telling the players to pass it a bit more and play in a 4-3-3.

Clearly, given this new direction, there’s a method behind implementing the system now and getting players used to it, or simply seeing who can do it and who can’t. There was always going to be an adjustment period as players adapted. The issue is that it’s been shoehorned in when the season was still active. We weren’t so far off the play-offs when Spencer was told to pack his haggis and go, but by determining that the way the team played would have to change, and quickly, Wilkinson and Paulson effectively signed the death warrant of this season back in June, for all their public protestation otherwise.

Of course, if it leads to a stellar, or at least competitive, 2013 then the short term pain would be deemed worth it. Enter, Caleb Porter.

Porter has a big job in the off season in identifying those players who aren’t suited and getting them out, and bringing in players who can play “possession with purpose”. The way the current roster has been built has been almost magpie-like – picking up shiny pieces here and there with no real thought for how they fit together. That can’t continue if the Timbers hope to be successful. Signings have to made with the system in mind, rather than simply because he’s a good player and available, ala Kris Boyd. We’ve already seen how successful bringing players in and just plugging them into a system and hoping it works despite everything they (should) know about the player.

With four matches left of a dismal season, the Timbers get to stay in the Pacific Northwest for the remainder. DC United visit Jeld-Wen this weekend, and this followed by trips to Seattle and Vancouver as the team look to salvage a Cascadia Cup triumph from the wreckage of 2012. San Jose visit to round off the year.

#RCTID


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Portland Timbers Nil, [INSERT_TEAM_NAME] [INSERT_VALUE>0]

“Timbers road loss” are three words I’m getting sick of hearing, reading, saying or writing. A trip to face Real Salt Lake resulted in a pretty comprehensive 3-0 defeat for Portland – the second road defeat by the same scoreline in a row. Alvaro Saborio will grab the headlines for his hat-trick, but he’s a Real* player and I’m more interested in talking about the Timbers. RSL fans can talk their own team up.

As expected, Kosuke Kimura started, which meant Jack Jewsbury being relieved of half-a-brain duty at full back and back into his “best” position in midfield alongside the suspension-free Diego Chara. What I didn’t quite expect was that Lovel Palmer would be crashing the party like the metaphorical third wheel, or the literal player of limited ability.

In fact, if the @TimbersFC twitter squad announcement was to be believed, the team would be lining up in a 4-3-3 with Mwanga up top, flanked by Darlington Nagbe and Eric Alexander. I couldn’t see that happening. I’ve been watching Scotland slog around Eastern Europe, playing for draws against teams that weren’t even countries when I was born, and I saw the same look to this Timbers team.

An isolated attacker, left to fend for scraps and given the jobs of running the channels, holding up the play, chasing down lost causes, challenging for the ball.. oh, and something about a ball and a net. I forget what.

Alexander can now cross off another box in Square Hole Bingo as he was a nominal attacker here. In reality, and as I suspected after a seconds though, it was going to be much more a 4-5-1 than 4-3-3.

In fact, it generally shaped into a 4-1-4-1 with one of the three central midfielders sitting deep. I’d have preferred to see the more limited Palmer playing as the anchor man of the three, but instead it was Chara, presumably in an attempt to bring the ball out from the back instead of resorting to long balls at Mwanga, who was being matched by 2 Salt Lake defenders at all times.

Unsurprisingly, the Timbers gave up a lot of possession, and found it hard to bring midfield and attack together. Chances were fleeting and carried more of hope than expectation about them.

The flow of the play can, broadly, be followed here:

At no point are RSL put under the kosh as their pass success rate actually improve as the game goes on. After an initial “feeling out” spell, it doesn’t take long for RSL to recognise that the Timbers’, cough, 4-3-3 leaves the flanks open.

They seem to target Kimura early on, presumably looking to exploit the “new guy” and his unfamiliarity with his team mates. Kimura had a decent game though. He doesn’t look like a match winner, necessarily, but neither does he look like a match loser. So, onwards and upwards.

They almost exclusively play down the flanks in the second half, and eventually get joy from it, by exploiting the way Huey, Dewey and Louie in midfield were dropping deeper.

A fine finish, but a poor goal to lose for the Timbers, in my opinion. Given the way we were set up with three guys congesting the midfield, how did a Real** player get so much space and time to cross in for Saborio?

Some will point to the lack of Real passing through the middle and say that our three did their job, but it never felt like a sure fit for me and it failed us more than once in the match.

Besides which, RSL actually had more passes in that attacking midfield area against the Timbers central three, than they managed against Seattle.

When they stepped up a gear, there was always the threat, to me at least, that they could go right through the heart of the three musketeers, if they needed to. Rather than turning Salt Lake attacks to stone, the Timbers lined up with the Stygian Witches in midfield and found themselves unable to fathom what do when the opponents simply play around you.

Looking back at the big set of chalkboards, you can even see the Timbers start to mimic the way RSL were playing in the second half. Almost exclusively down the wings. We had three guys in the centre of the pitch who simply weren’t getting involved in the match to any real degree.

By the time Spencer perhaps began to recognise his team was ceding more territory to RSL, dropping the midfield right in front of the defence and with no outlet for the ball, the Timbers were 2-0 down.

The second goal, following on so quickly after the 1st, was a killer blow and put out any faint hopes that the Timbers would improbably come back.

If I wasn’t a Timbers fan I could almost laugh at the way Saborio jumps and down and waves for the quick ball over the top when he realises he’s one on one with Smith, and that he has the jump on him.

The third goal was a comedy of errors. First Jack Jewsbury gets comprehensively outjumped by Saborio, and then Diego Chara is sent off for handling the ball on the line. With the game as good as lost, it was one of those occaisions when Chara’s instincts betrayed him. A more calculating player lets it go past as 3-0 is as good as 2-0 *shrug*. Instead, Chara will miss the visit of LA Galaxy in the third match of the “Seriously? Again? Already?!” Cup this weekend.

By the way, glance back to those chalkboards and see how RSL kill a game off and close it out (admittedly against 10 men for a bit) and compare it to how the Timbers did against San Jose. Night and day.

With injuries hitting, it’s actually admirable to see Spencer try and change things up. His bunker-in-and-break-out ploy was, on paper, a decent, if hardly exciting, thought. The problem with a strategy like that only works as long as you’re not behind as it’s hard to play with that mentality and then have to chase a game late on.

Mosquera didn’t start, as I thought he might not given the way Spencer picks his XI-JJ. In the event, neither Futty nor Horst had particularly bad games. RSL are a good team, and good teams will punish you.

In a way, it’s not that much of a surprise that RSL won another home game. It’s certainly no surprise that the Timbers lost a road game. For 60 minutes, Spencer will say the Timbers strategy was working and it was only when the Timbers chased the game that the gap widened.

The fact is, as I see it, the Timbers didn’t hold off RSL for 60 minutes, they held on. We simply don’t possess the players to play this way and win more than the occasional fluke.

Mwanga didn’t provide the outlet the Timbers needed, and Nagbe and Alexander found it difficult to build the play. There was still a good chance when Chara led a breakaway, but his pass into the box was way ahead of Mwanga, who hadn’t made the run to the back post the Colombian expected.

Such is the nature of the way the Timbers played that failure to take what few chances were presented to them left them in an ever more precarious position.

Without that guy doing the donkey work up top, RSL were only going to get more and more of the ball, and they’re too good to not punish you eventually.

I get what Spencer was doing with Mwanga. He’s more mobile than Boyd, he’s big (if not exactly dominant aerially) and can play it on the deck too. It was a gamble – dropping the club’s leading scorer – but one I can respect, even though it didn’t come off in the end.

We were never able to join the dots in attack, and as a result we were ever more reliant on out defense performing above themselves. In the end, the quality of an attacker like Saborio told.

A game we were expected to lose, despite some hopeful coverage pre-game, and, given the way Spencer lined up his team, we lost the way you’d expect us to. Even so, it’s still hurts. The road form is trolling on a subcontinental level.

Our away form continues to be dismal. It can’t be coincidence still. Something in our prep or approach is lacking away from Jeld-Wen. Yes, the fans make great noise and support the team and I’m sure it lifts the players, but they shouldn’t need that kind of lift to perform at even at decent standard. And I don’t believe for a second it has quite the dramatic effect that the stats would seem to suggest. There has to be more to it than that, and if not then it’s time to get a group of players who can do their jobs without being roared on by a crowd that, pardon the cliche, deserves better.

With the home crowd behind them, the Timbers might be expected to do a bit better against LA, but they’ll have to do it without Chara. At least Jack is back where he’s needed, though, so, there’s that.

A win against Beckham FC would move the Timbers to within a point of them and, potentially, the play-off spots.

As bad as it’s been, there’s still hope. Just, maybe not a great deal of expectation.

#RCTID

* also works with a lower-case r
** again, as above

Portland Timbers 2 Real Salt Lake 3

Losing a match is always tough. Losing it in the last few minutes of a match is even tougher. Losing it from a winning position in those last few minutes…

It’s little wonder then that emotions ran high among Timbers fans in the aftermath of a spirit-crushing 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake. Having clawed their back from a 1-0 half time deficit to lead 2-1, thanks to two routine wonder goals from Darlington “Yeah, I Just Did That” Nagbe, it looked like the Timbers were going to score three crucial points in a tough battle for the play-off’s in the Western Conference. But back came RSL with a sickening 1-2 at the death.

It’s natural for people to look for an explanation for such a dramatic turnaround. For some, it was the ref’s fault, though I can’t follow that logic myself. The ref, or his assistants, didn’t have a great game by any means, but they didn’t lose this match for Portland.

For me, the match was lost because of individual errors, both on field and off. Continue reading Portland Timbers 2 Real Salt Lake 3