Timbers get one (point), but their work's far from done
Before the opening whistle against the San Jose Earthquakes, the Portland Timbers knew that they controlled their playoff position. Earlier in the evening, D.C. United had managed only a 2-2 draw with Chivas USA. and the New York Red Bulls had lost 3-1 to Real Salt Lake.
For the Timbers, earning a draw would move them into sole possession of the 10th and final MLS playoff spot. A win would put Portland in a lock for ninth place with the Houston Dynamo.
The Timbers wanted a win and ninth place.
'Our mentality every week, home and away, is that we're going to go out and try to win every game,' Timbers coach John Spencer says. 'When you have that mentality that you're trying to settle for a point, you can invite trouble onto yourself. We went out and tried to win the game.'
That was not how it worked out, though. The Timbers took an early 1-0 lead, then allowed the Earthquakes (6-11-11, 29 points) to spoil it with a second-half goal. The 1-1 draw at Jeld-Wen Field before an announced sellout crowd of 18,627 gave Portland a 6-11-2 record (37 points), one point ahead of New York, which will play host to Portland on Saturday.
After the match, Spencer tried to put a positive spin on the result.
'You look at the results tonight (with) Chivas and D.C., it wasn't too bad of a night for us,' he said. 'You always want to get three (points), but you know what? You can't always win the games.'
The players, however, looked dejected in the locker room.
'It feels like a loss,' defender Mike Chabala said. 'The guys are disappointed. Everybody is. It is what it is. You've got to come out and perform and play. It stings a little bit because we don't have many home games left. We've got to take advantage of the ones we have here.'
The Timbers began the match looking lethargic after Friday night's 3-0 win over the New England Revolution.
Still, Portland managed to quickly give itself a 1-0 lead.
After a long pass down the pitch, Timbers rookie Darlington Nagbe won a header against an Earthquakes defender. Once the ball came to the ground, Nagbe controlled it. He made a run down the right side. When the San Jose defense closed in on him, Nagbe centered a pass just outside the 6-yard box.
'Their midfielder went up for the ball and lost sight of it,' Nagbe said. 'I saw the ball and ran and just took the ball and went end line and slid it across.'
Kenny Cooper had slipped in behind the defense and was unmarked, seven yards out. All he had to do was tap a soft right-footed shot, keep it on frame and the ball was in the back of the net.
Humble by nature, Cooper gave all the credit for his second goal in two matches to Nagbe.
'Darlington got the ball and did a great job when he was on it, and he was able to pull it back to me,' Cooper said of his ninth-minute score, his sixth of the season. 'He showed great vision to pull the ball back.'
San Jose earned quite a few chances in the first half. But every time the Earthquakes got off a shot it was as if the ball had a honing device that delivered it directly to Timbers goalkeeper Troy Perkins. Perkins made four saves in the first half, none of them challenging.
Perkins said the easy saves were because of both his positioning and good luck.
'You want to get in the best position you can,' he said. 'If they put it far enough away from you, you're not going to get it. Luckily, most of their shots were from outside angles where I'm in a great spot to make it easy.'
Throughout the second half, the Timbers looked apathetic on defense. The back line let runners get into space and relied on the good fortune of bad passes or missed shots.
That lack of intensity finally came back to bite Portland in the 70th minute, when the Earthquakes found the equalizer.
San Jose played a touch passing game about 20 yards from goal. The ball finally came to midfielder Rafael Baca on the right side. The Timbers failed to converge on Baca. He sent a five-yard horizontal pass to Khari Stephenson, who was standing in the middle of the pitch, just outside the 18-yard box.
Stephenson took a touch, turned and fired a shot between three Timbers defenders. The ball went low and hard and beat Perkins to the bottom corner of the right post.
'The ball was in possession,' Chabala said. 'We got caught in transition. (Defender Eric) Brunner was stepping out. It's just kind of unlucky it went through his legs or snuck right next to him into the side of the net.'
The goal gave the Earthquakes more energy in every aspect of the game. They continued pressuring on the attack. And when the Timbers countered, San Jose closed down faster than they had throughout the match, refusing to allow the Timbers a good chance at goal.
Four of Portland's remaining five regular-season matches will be on the road. With little to no breathing room in the hunt for the playoffs, the Timbers know they must get results on the road if they want to extend their season.
'Do I think we're good enough to go out and pick up points on the road?' Spencer asked. 'Yes, I do. We've got to have that belief in ourselves. That's what the good teams do at this time of the year. They go on the road and grind out three points.
'It's not always about style and substance. Sometimes you've just got to dig deep and go and sneak a win. We'll approach the game against Red Bulls this weekend the exact same way we approached the game tonight: go out and try to get three points.'