At Jeld-Wen Field, when it rains, it pours. It pours goals, memories, and emphatic Portland Timbers victories. In cascading rain in Cascadia Saturday night against back-to-back MLS Cup finalists the Houston Dynamo, the Timbers were singing to the tune of their first win of the 2013 season.
If there has been one game the entire season that the Timbers could have been least fancied to triumph in, it could have easily been this tilt against the dynamic Dynamo. Houston came into Portland leading the Western Conference, on the back of extending the joint-longest home unbeaten run in MLS history. Under Dominic Kinaaer – coaching mentor to the departed John Spencer – Houston has become the most professional and able team in MLS. Heady, tough, resilient and wise, Houston was the best team possession wise in MLS in 2012, and they seemed to have the perfect concoction of midfield gumption and attacking wits to shut down the sprightly Timbers.
In the first half, it was Houston’s kind of game – cagey and physical. With one of the leaders of the MLS Incompetent Referee Sweepstakes, Ricardo Salazar, in charge of the game, there was always going to be controversy.
It came when Diego Valeri was elbowed in the face, and headed off the field in a daze – the Houston player was not booked. Valeri was Portland’s second starter lost to injury, the first being the ill-fortuned David Horst, who twisted his ankle in an ugly fashion and had to be stretchered off after just 15 minutes.
Controversy again struck when Mikael Silvestre, back in the heart of the Timbers defense, applied a wonderfully hard, crunching tackle on a Houston player, which was adjudged not to have been a foul – it wasn’t. The Timbers were allowed to play on for almost a minute, until play stopped when Salazar booked Silvestre. How a player can receive a yellow card for not committing a foul is confounding but apparently, Salazar understands how it can be done.
All in all, it was a frustrating half. Portland couldn’t get much traction on the attack, and both teams were battering each other. But the Timbers hung in. They didn’t give up a goal, didn’t make the one fatal mistake, and went into halftime with a clean slate. It was the first time all year the Timbers didn’t concede in the first half, and the first time all year they didn’t look in much danger of conceding a goal all game.
The Timbers are a second half team. The second half is when the pores of a defense open up, the space on the field grows, and the Timbers can take over possession and control as other teams tire, sucking the life out of the opposition and eventually their defensive resistance. In Caleb Porter’s system, the second half is the time to make the attacking move – a departure from John Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson’s reign, when the first half was when the Timbers would bundle out the gate with bluster and energy, only to fade down the stretch.
The Timbers are always going to be at their best in the second stanza, which is why it was so encouraging that Portland got to halftime with the score, if not their team, fully intact.
Immediately at the start of the second half, the Timbers were in control. Ryan Johnson’s opener could have been seen coming from 100 yards away, Johnson’s second could have been seen coming from 500 yards away.
The Timbers blew Dynamo right back to Houston in the second half. They dominated one of the finest teams in the league with ease. It was just Kalif Alhassan pirouetting around defenders, or Diego Chara driving through them like they didn’t exist; it was Rodney Wallace slashing and dashing and uncorking a laser-beam that cruelly hit the bar and the post and bounced out.
When they get going, the Timbers mojo is the best in the league. At its best, Portland’s attack is like a mudslide, building speed and building speed until it’s too fast to halt. When they get going, the players’ skill and confidence rub off on each other – Fredrique Piquionne did very well in his few minutes, but there is no place for him in the team the offense played so well down the stretch. The same thing could possibly be said for Alhassan, who again neared his best Saturday night.
The Timbers needed a win Saturday night, not so much for the points – although they never hurt – but more as a validation for the progress made under Caleb Porter so far in this 2013 season. The local and national media can point to this result to shore up any of their own lingering doubts about the Timbers, and it will help the team’s confidence, especially defensively.
As good as the attack was, the defense was equally as impressive. Silvestre was exactly what he was signed to be – composed, strong, and at ease. When David Horst was forced off and replaced by Andrew John-Baptiste in the opening minutes of the game, the defense didn’t miss a beat. Silvestre provided leadership, both with his effectiveness on the ball, and off the ball – confronting Houston skipper Brad Davis after a shove on Alhassan.
Jack Jewsbury was also effective – he has again regained his place in the team as a solid, versatile player. It was fun to see a game really come together for the Timbers – and their level of dominance in the second half suggests that, at their best, Portland can beat any team in MLS.
Consistency is the obvious next step, and it will be hard to attain in a brutal month of April, but on Saturday night against Houston, promise turned into a superb result for the Timbers. The team has now had a different star-man in each of their five games – Valeri against New York, Nagbe against Montreal, Jean-Baptiste against Seattle, Will Johnson against Colorado and Ryan Johnson against Houston.
After consistency, the Timbers will have a fair bit of swagger – and no team in the country will want to come into Jeld-Wen Field to play a smoldering, swaggering, Caleb Porter soccer team.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports