A season after missing the playoffs, the Portland Timbers seem to be off to hot start, winning their first two matches and sitting atop the Supporter Shield standings by way of goal differential. But it may be too soon to say the team has made a turnaround.
The season opener against the expansion side Minnesota United, though impressive in the fact that the Timbers scored five goals, did little to indicate what they could do when facing a more worth-while opponent. Coming into the season, there was no doubt that Minnesota would struggle, as it did in their home opener this weekend against the other expansion side, Atlanta United. Atlanta absolutely throttled Minnesota on a snowy day in Minneapolis. The final score was a staggering 6-1. You may recall that before the start of the season, I predicted that Atlanta would make the Eastern Conference playoffs in their inaugural year in MLS. But the results for both the Timbers and Atlanta say much more about Minnesota than it does about the winning teams. I think there’s plenty more stat-padding to come for opponents of Minnesota United.
So what about Portland in week two, which saw the Timbers travel to Los Angeles to face the Galaxy, a team that finished third in the Western Conference last year? The Galaxy lost their home opener 2-1 to Dallas FC on opening weekend and hobbled into its second match against the Timbers even worse than they had against Dallas. Three of LA’s top players (Robbie Rogers, Ashley Cole and Gyasi Zardes) were already out with injuries. The added insult, in the eyes of the Galaxy, was that two of its starters from the previous week were suspended by the league’s Disciplinary Committee after review of their conduct in the Dallas game. Jermaine Jones and Dave Romney were both forced to miss the match against the Timbers and the Galaxy had to reach deep into its lineup to field a team on Sunday.
The Timbers got off to a great start, with Diego Chara finishing off a lovely team effort in the eighth minute. It really was a thing of beauty. The kind of goal that soccer lovers love. It showed why the Timbers are dangerous at every moment in every match. After an LA corner kick was headed out of the box, Sebastián Blanco sent a long ball through the air from the defensive third to just past the arc in LA territory, where Chara played a perfectly placed one-touch header into the space ahead of Diego Valeri, creating a two on one situation towards goal. Valeri’s first touch was several yards inside the Galaxy’s box. He drew the defender and froze the keeper. His second touch was a square pass across the face of the goal, setting up Chara with the simplest of tap-ins to an open net from about four yards out.
Things went from bad to worse for LA when defender and captain Jelle Van Damme earned a second yellow card in the 34th minute and was sent off, leaving the Galaxy with only 10 men on the field for the final 62 minutes of the match (there was 6+ minutes of stoppage time). In addition to that, their best attacker, Giovani Dos Santos, was replaced at the half due to a leg injury. You’d think that would mean the Timbers would have an easy time of it, then, right? Not necessarily. In fact, for the first ten minutes after Van Damme was sent off, it was all LA.
The second half did little to improve on the showing from the end of the first half. Portland did not look like a team playing with a man advantage. In the 72nd minute, Fanendo Adi nearly pulled off a carbon copy of his first goal in injury time against Minnesota last week, but was denied by a fantastic defensive effort. LA had two great chances to equalize, the first coming in the 82nd minute when a direct kick from about 23 yards out sailed just wide of the woodwork, and then again in the 94th minute when goalkeeper Jake Gleeson was forced to make a diving save off a header that was flicked on toward the far post.
I’m not saying the Timbers shouldn’t be happy with the results of their first two matches. A win is a win, no doubt, and these points will come in handy at the end of the year. But it should be noted that neither of these matches offered the kind of competition and pressure that the Timbers will have to face over the course of the season in order to find their way back into the playoffs.
The first real test will be next Saturday, a home match against the Houston Dynamo, a team that has also won both of its matches so far this season, dispatching the Seattle Sounders 2-1 and the Columbus Crew 3-1. With a relentless counter-attacking style, Houston will look to punish the Timbers in transition as they have their last two opponents. And the Timbers will have to do a better job of finding the back of the net than they did against LA.