The Philadelphia Union came to Jeld-Wen Field allowing an MLS-low two goals for the season. And tor 72 minutes Friday night, the Union defense lived up to its reputation.
Though the Portland Timbers controlled a huge amount of the possession, they could never find a chink in the armor of the stifling Philly defense.
The Timbers finally broke through, though, when Jack Jewsbury sent a free kick into the box and Mamadou 'Futty'' Danso knocked in a header. The goal was all the Timbers needed, as they held on for a 1-0 victory before an announced sellout crowd of 18,627.
TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ • Portland's Jorge Perlaza heads the ball over Philadelphia's Amobi Okugo.
'I said to the guys at halftime, 'We need to keep our heads in the game, try to stay focused, try to force our game on them,' ' Timbers coach John Spencer said. 'A clean sheet and a set piece will win the game.''
Only the most gung-ho soccer aficionado would have called Friday's first half exciting.
Though the Timbers (4-3-1, 13 points) constantly had the ball in the attacking third, they never had a good chance to score. The Union defense was too tight to allow the Timbers' offense any creativity. Passing lanes were shut down.
TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ • Jeremy Hall raises his arms to the crowd after the Timbers' goal in their 1-0 victory.
The Timbers got only one shot on goal in the half. That came when midfielder Darlington Nagbe sent a harmless 15-yard shot straight to Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon.
'They get behind the ball very quickly,' Spencer said, of the Union defense. 'They're good athletes. They've got a great awareness to the game. A lot of the players are good footballers. Good touch and technical ability. They make it difficult for you to break it down.
'Our plan was, could we play out of pressure quickly?' Spencer added, 'because they get so many numbers in and around the ball. In the first half, we weren't doing that enough. We never got to the wide man quick enough with the ball. That's why our two wide men (Kenny Cooper and Jorge Perlaza), in the first half, had a quiet game.'
TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ • Portland's Kalif Alhassen kicks the ball towards Philadelphia's goal.
For most of the match, the Union offense was nonexistent. It was not so much that their attackers did not play well. More, it was that they never had a chance to attack. Time and again, Philly made a stop on a Timbers attack and gave the possession back to Portland in the middle third.
Spencer credited the tenacity of his defenders for the turnovers.
'Our two central defenders, when the ball was going long, won every single header there was,' he said.
The Union (4-2-1, 13 points) had their best opportunity to score when former Jefferson High and Oregon State star Danny Mwanga received the ball along the right touchline in the 39th minute. Mwanga made a superb run, creating distance between himself and Danso, who was trying to catch up to him. As he neared the corner, Mwanga sent a cross into the box for Union striker Carlos Ruiz.
Ruiz was a split-second late getting to the cross, though.
Timbers defender Jeremy Hall cleared the ball, and the attack was over.
'Someone passed me the ball from the side,' Mwanga said. 'Danso was on my back. I just took a slight touch and turned on him. Unfortunately, they got a bit lucky to not get scored on on that play. It was a great play.'
As the second half began, it was more of the same from the Union. Their defense was unwilling to break, and the match seemed to be headed for a nil-nil draw.
'Basically, (the Union) were trying to hold out for a tie, or sneak one in on a set piece,' Spencer said.
TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ • The Timbers' Kenny Cooper battles for the ball with Philadelphia's Kyle Nakazawa.
Unfortunately for Philadelphia, it would be Portland that was able to sneak one in on a set piece.
In the 72nd minute, Jewsbury lined up for a free kick from about 40 yards out on the left side.
'The job for me is to put it in a spot where those guys can get on the end of it,' Jewsbury said. 'Those are difference-makers in games. This was a tight game tonight. It was a hard-fought game. At the end of the day, set pieces, whether on the offensive side or the defensive side, can be the difference.'
TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ • Mamadou Danso (center) of the Portland Timbers holds up a slab of wood in the celebration of the victory at Jeld-Wen Field.
Jewsbury hit a perfect ball into the left side of the six-yard-box. 'Futty' and Perlaza both went for the ball, going up against two Union defenders. The 6-3, 185- pound Danso outjumped all three players and knocked a header passed Mondragon, to the near post.
'When I had the chance, I just happened to get on the end of it and put it on target,' Danso said.
The Timbers will have eight days to prepare for a road trip to Seattle on Saturday, when they will face their archrival, the Sounders.
'Now we've got to go on the road and show the same effort and energy that we've been showing at home,' Cooper said. 'Seattle is obviously a big game. It means a ton to our fans, so it would be great to leave there with a win. I'm sure it will be a great game, and we're all looking forward to this one.'