Portland Timbers’ Back Four Pass Test in LA

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The Portland Timbers extended their streak of matches without a loss to 14 last night with a resilient performance against the Los Angeles Galaxy that led to a 0-0 draw. In a match where the backline provided most of the highlights, the man of the match was surly reserve center-half Andrew Jean Baptiste, whose dogged tackling was exactly what the Timbers needed in order to seal their second straight clean sheet.

Teaming up with partner Pa-Modou Kah, the two anchored a back four that employed a bend but don’t break defensive philosophy, which succeeded in crushing the Galaxy’s hopes of bouncing back after three straight defeats. Kah made three crucial defensive plays on Landon Donovan in the first half, twice producing perfectly timed slide tackles in the penalty box. Jean-Baptiste, starting in place of Futty Danso who was out with a sprained ankle, made countless clearances with both his head and feet, and was responsible for one of the most impressive tackle of the game, taking the ball off Robbie Keane’s foot in a one on one situation that quickly put an end to what would have been a net bulging opportunity late in the second half. With a performance like this, Jean-Baptiste has likely forced his way into the starting 11 for the foreseeable future.

The draw puts the Timbers in a tie with Real Salt Lake for second place in the Western Conference, and just one point behind leaders FC Dallas, a team Portland defeated only four days ago. Continuing to pick up points is imperative as only 8 points separate the top 9 teams in the west.

Donovan Ricketts, facing his former club, risked getting kicked in the face when collecting a loose Landon Donovan corner in the 78th minute, a move that while dangerous, was necessary to prevent a sure goal. Early on, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane tested the Timber flanks in an attempt to outrun the Portland fullbacks. The Galaxy succeeded often, earning five early corner kicks and consistently throwing dangerous balls in. The closest call came later in the 55th minute, when a glancing header from Los Angeles defender Sean Franklin struck the right post. Getting his first start of the season, LA midfielder Robbie Rogers looked very effective from box to box, giving the Galaxy a very encouraging sign of things to come. Despite his relentless driving play, Rogers was eventually taken off in the 69th minute.

In a move that showed manager Caleb Porter’s confidence in his side, midfielder Diego Valeri (shakey) was replaced by newly acquired striker and virtuoso header, Frederic Piquionne, as the Timbers attempted to go for the throat rather than defend the draw in the 67th minute. Although they were unable to steal the victory, the scoreline is a positive result against a talented side at home, especially as it was Portland’s fourth game in eleven days. The Timbers have not lost an away fixture in any competition this season, improving their away record to 2-0-7, and are now only the second team in MLS history to remain unbeaten in 10 straight away matches. The Timbers have not lost a league match, regardless of venue, since March 9th, a loss that remains their only stumble of the season.

Slowed by the Timbers’ ability to rally bodies behind the ball and concisely close down players in dangerous areas, the infamous Galaxy counter attack sputtered. The matchup between Donovan and LB Michael Harrington on the right flank was hotly contested all night, with Harrington eventually holding his ground, until a collision with Ben Zemanski caused him to leave the pitch on a stretcher in the 81st minute.

In recent years, many have blamed the Timbers’ lack of success in Los Angeles on the club's inability to perform under the bright lights of Los Angeles, with commentator Robbie Earle even commenting that in the past they had “lost before the game even started”. It took the Timbers about 13 minutes to shake off their jitters last night, becoming comfortable in possession from that point on, and doing their best to get the ball to the creative Darlington Nagbe and Ryan Johnson, hoping the two of them could link up and slot home a winner. The Galaxy back line did a stellar job in their own right not allowing either enough room to steal a goal, though Nagbe did manage to cut inside in the 30th minute and fire a scorching line drive effort from ten yards outside the box that forced a Carlo Cudicini save.

Portland has never won an away match vs. Los Angeles in their brief MLS history.

The Timbers’ best move of the match was deciding to wear their retro white kits. Those crisp white unis are winners even when the team is not.