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Timbers coach Spencer praises beaten RSL; Nagbe happy despite quiet first start

by: JOSH BRYAN The Portland Timbers celebrate their 1-0 victory Saturday night over Real Salt Lake at Jeld-Wen Field.

Ask any general about a vanquished foe and he will promptly go into great detail praising the enemy, before elaborating on just how he went about beating them.

Portland Timbers coach John Spencer did that after the 1-0 victory over Real Salt Lake Saturday night at Jeld-Wen Field.

'Listen, they're a great team,' Spencer said. 'For us, we went out, asked the guys to perform, asked them to keep a clean sheet, and they did everything we asked of them tonight. So, fantastic, great win.'

Spencer took the praising thing to a whole nother stratosphere, though.

'Just because we beat them tonight doesn't mean we're better than them,' he said.

Wait a second. Yes, Real Salt Lake played without six regular starters in the first half in the wake of its CONCACAF Champions League finals loss to Monterrey on Wednesday. But RSL did put in three of those players in the second half. Did the Timbers coach really admit that Real Salt Lake - which was unbeaten in 18 straight league matches dating to July 2010 - was better than his squad?

'I would think so, yeah,' Spencer said. 'Right now they are, yeah, because they've got the trophies and MLS Cups to prove it. They're a quality team. They're the yardstick for every team in Major League Soccer, quality-wise.'

After saying that, though, Spencer regained his victorious general's air.

'Tonight, (Real Salt Lake) met a Portland Timbers team that was ready to compete for 90 minutes,' he said.

• It was a forgettable first MLS start for Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe, the club's No. 2 pick in the SuperDraft.

The 5-9, 165-pound Liberian native played 82 minutes but took only one shot, in the 64th. It came from the right side, deflected harmlessly off a defender and went out of bounds.

With Real Salt Lake pushing numbers in the final 10 minutes, Nagbe was pulled in favor of Sal Zizzo, who in just more than eight minutes of work was able to clear the ball out of the Real Salt Lake attacking third of the pitch and create one of the few second-half scoring opportunities for the Timbers.

Nagbe, the 2010 Hermann Trophy winner as the outstanding collegian (University of Akron), said he was not hurt by Spencer's decision to pull him during crunch time.

'No, definitely not,' he said. 'Anything for our team to win. Coach did what he thought was right, and putting Sal in and having more energy attacking-wise and defensively, it was a good choice.'

Though he did little to impress with his first start, Nagbe remained positive about the night.

'It was my first start, and I felt like I got good minutes in,' he said. 'I'm happy about that, and I feel like it's coming along great.'

•• Spencer called Saturday's 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake the club's 'toughest' win.

'I said this to the boys in the locker room: 'One of the keys to the game is talent alone wouldn't win you the game tonight.' And we showed up and we scored,' Spencer said. 'They came at us. But we've got a resilient group of players. We showed a lot of character after last week (a 3-0 road loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy) with the goals we conceded, not to concede and to be mentally strong.'

••• The win against Real Salt Lake may have been cathartic in a way for Spencer, who still had not let go of the loss to the Galaxy.

'The game last week was playing in my mind as I walked into the stadium today,' Spencer said. 'How last week's performance and last week's result was a really difficult pill to swallow. I didn't think they were three goals better than us as a team.'

•••• If once is a fluke and twice is a pattern, it is time to ask why the Timbers (3-3-1, 10 points) are so good (3-0-0) at Jeld-Wen Field.

'It's fantastic,' RSL coach Jason Kreis said, of the atmosphere at the downtown stadium. 'Portland should be proud of themselves, and the players should be thrilled that they get to play in this environment every week.'

Real Salt Lake defender Chris Wingert also was impressed with the scene at Jeld-Wen Field. But he was not ready to give home-pitch advantage all the credit for RSL's loss.

'The atmosphere is incredible,' Wingert said. 'But that's not why we lost. We've dealt with some hostile crowds lately.'

Spencer seemed to agree with that.

'You think the fans got us nine points at home?' he asked. 'I don't. The players got that. They came out, they've run themselves into the ground tonight.'