Defense seeks to regain stride

Injuries have affected Timbers’ back line, leading to slow start
by: MICHAEL MARTIN Steve Purdy heads the ball in the Portland Timbers’ MLS opener at Colorado.

Throughout the preseason, coach John Spencer said time and again that the Portland Timbers were a “new team” —not an expansion team. But in their first two MLS matches, the Timbers have played exactly like an expansion team would be expected to play —poorly. The Timbers’ offense has scored one goal (on a free kick, with the team trailing badly in the final stages of the opener at Colorado). Of even more concern is that the defense, which was the side’s calling card during the preseason, began hemorrhaging goals, giving up three in the first match against the Colorado Rapids and two in the second match against Toronto FC, both on the road. “It’s horrible to concede goals like that,” Timber defender Steve Purdy says. “As a defender, you want to make sure you have clean sheets. You don’t want to be giving up multiple goals each game. That’s very disappointing. We’re a new team. Different things might not spark at first.” But just when it looked as though it might be time for the defense to break the glass and hit the panic button, the Timbers kept a clean sheet in their U.S. Open Cup first-round match Tuesday. The team beat Chivas USA 2-0 at Merlo Field, earning a second-round tournament game at San Jose on an April date to be determined. The outcome lifted some spirits as the Timbers began preparing for Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. PT MLS road match against the New England Revolution (1-0-1). “We’re only two games into the season,” Timber defender Eric Brunner says. “It’s a long season. I’m pretty confident that we’re going to get things sorted out and we’re going to start piecing things together.” Time to stand up A few breaks of the game have collided and allowed both defending league champion Colorado and also-ran Toronto to find chinks in the Timbers’ defensive armor. The Portland back line was handcuffed before the season started, when 6-3 Mamadou “Futty” Danso, 27, was recalled by the Gambian national team. “It’s unfortunate that he’s not here at this time of the year,” Spencer says. “But what can you do about it?” The Timbers took two more hard knocks, losing projected starting goalkeeper Troy Perkins, 29, for several weeks with a strained ligament in his right knee and then seeing 32-year-old backup goalkeeper Adin Brown injure his hamstring last week at Toronto. That left the club with 20-year-old Jake Gleeson as the last line of defense. Spencer refuses to let the Timbers use tough luck as an excuse for poor play, though. “I’ve said to the guys in the locker room, you can complain and make excuses about a lot of things in life,” Spencer says. “There’s a lot of people a lot worse off than us. We’re in the fortunate position that we’re in a good job playing in Major League Soccer. It’s not time to make excuses. It’s time for standing up and being counted.” To do that, the back line will have to become even stingier as it tries to protect Gleeson. “It’s more important to keep the communication up and the focus,” Purdy says. “Whenever you have a young goalie in there you need to make sure that you’re all working together so no one’s getting isolated.” Icing on the cake Another moving part that has given the Timbers’ defense trouble is the offense’s inability to create a cushion for it by scoring goals. One way of dealing with that is to have the defenders score goals themselves, as Brunner did against Chivas USA. He knocked in a corner kick from 29-year-old midfielder Jack Jewsbury. “The main goal for me is being in the back,” says the 6-4 Brunner, 25. “But if you get a goal, it’s just icing on the cake.” Purdy, 26, says it has been hard watching the Timbers’ defensive struggles. “Obviously, whenever you get scored on it’s rough,” he says. “It’s always tough, even if the other team scores the nicest goal.” The 6-4 Purdy, however, says his confidence remains high that the Timbers can find their rhythm and become a good MLS defense. “We have all the tools to be a good defensive unit in Major League Soccer,” Purdy says. “Obviously, the last two league games don’t reflect that, giving up five goals. But our potential is great.”