Colorado Rapids striker Omar Cummings celebrates Saturday, March 19, after scoring the second of his team's three goals against against the Portland Timbers. Cummings was an unholy terror to the Timbers' defense, creating the first goal, scoring the second and harrying the back line throughout the game.
Editor's note: Ryan's write-up is below this. He was at the game. He's covering everything. He's got quotes. Go to the man's work. It has a surprisingly dirty title.
Before the Portland Timbers ever took the pitch this season, its defense had already been called into question. One game in, those concerns were not assuaged, as Portland gave up three goals to the Colorado Rapids in the first 30 minutes of both teams' season debuts.
The first Rapids goal was put in the back of the net by midfielder Jeff Larentowicz off a rebound in the eighth minute, but the defensive failure came in the lead-up to the midfielder's strike. The Timbers had Rapids striker Omar Cummings trapped by the corner flag, which the ball bounced off of to stay in play. Once that happened, Cummings wriggled his way out from between Portland left back Rodney Wallace, goat of the game, and center back Kevin Goldthwaite, and fired a low cross or shot attempt, which Timbers reserve goalkeeper Adin Brown spilled across his box. Larentowicz pounced on the ball and put it home into a vacant net.
The second Rapids goal was Cummings' personal reward for harrying the Timbers' defense throughout the game. In the 28th minute, the Colorado forward scored in his fourth consecutive season-opener, streaking through the Portland defense and deciding to keep to himself the fruits of his labor. Brown was alone in facing Cummings, who fired a shot that was saved before putting the rebound low into the bottom right corner of the net. The play was sprung by a Conor Casey header from a long ball, and Portland's center backs were initially out of position and unable to stay with Cummings as he dashed toward the goal.
The third Rapids goal came just two minutes later from the foot of midfielder Jamie Smith. The shot itself was a laser-guided missile, following a perfect trajectory from its launching point outside the penalty box, bouncing off the crossbar and into the net. Brown was helpless to stop the ball, which probably would have eluded any other goalkeeper in the world. Frankly, the shot couldn't have been much more perfect. Larentowicz started out a chain of deft passes that eventually left Smith unmarked and unobstructed, 20 yards from the goal. Neither Goldthwaite nor his center back partner, Eric Brunner, were home, and the Portland defensive midfielder had committed up the pitch to Casey. One center back was roaming near Smith, while the other was glued to Cummings' hip, having learned his lesson after the game's first two goals were masterminded by the Rapids striker.
Timbers manager John Spencer sensed the tactical emergency at halftime, doing like-for-like substitutions with center back Goldthwaite leaving for David Horst (and "The Horstache"), and defensive midfielder Peter Lowry leaving for Adam Moffat. Portland's defense seemed to pick up after that, as the Timbers did good job keeping the score respectable, especially when Kenny Cooper's late strike made the game look less lopsided. The removal of Rodney Wallace in the 65th minute was partially related to Wallace's poor play; it also shifted Jeremy Hall from the midfield to left back and put in Kalif Alhassan in left midfield, giving the Timbers a far more attack-minded team on the pitch.
(Spencer also may have put the fear of God into his defense during the break by screaming unintelligible gibberish with a Scottish accent. If it worked for William Wallace, it should work in a soccer game.)
There are some caveats to Portland's porous performance on the defensive side of the field. Small sample size definitely plays a role in the Timbers' defensive performance against the Rapids: It was one game, the team's first game together, and it was played on the road at altitude. There's certainly time for the team to build on its performance and increase its teamwork. Another thing to consider is the proficiency of the offense of Portland's opposition. Colorado was tied for second in goals for the entire league last season, and it returned its entire starting 11 from last season's MLS Cup-winning side. The chemistry is already there, and the team's attack is spearheaded by two players with international soccer experience in Casey and Cummings.
With Portland next facing a Toronto FC team defeated by the Vancouver Whitecaps today, there should be a better, fairer way to judge the true talent of the Timbers' defense. Until then, this one poor performance is all there is to judge the team by.
For the Timbers to be able to have any success this season, stopping other teams from scoring is imperative. It doesn't have to be an impenetrable fortress in the back for there to be soccer success in the Rose City, but Portland can't get steamrolled like this on a regular basis and win many games. Offense can only carry a team so far, after all.
Below the jump are player-by-player evaluations for players with defensive roles.
Adin Brown: It should be noted that Brown was left all alone on multiple occasions, and the Timbers would have been certain to lose even with a healthy Troy Perkins between the sticks. Though Brown spilled balls played by Cummings on the first two Colorado goals, neither was a Robert Green-level howler, and Brown did well to deflect both attempts. The defense had already left Brown vulnerable, however; the Timbers were also nowhere to be found when those balls needed to be cleared out of the box. As for the third goal, nobody in the league was going to stop that rocket, Perkins included.
Simply put, no team can leave its backup goalkeeper in multiple one-on-one situations and expect to win a road game. Brown was left all alone more often than me on Valentine's Day (I'm on a streak of 20 consecutive years of being single on Singles Awareness Day), which is unfair to the guy. There's a reason he came up screaming at his defenders after Cummings' goal.
Rodney Wallace: Somewhere between letting Omar Cummings get away in the buildup to the first goal and making the terrible back-pass into a legitimate offensive tactic for the opposing team, Wallace was in over his head. Even his throw-ins were poor, turning into turnovers more often than not. He showed no link-up on the left with Hall, his college teammate, and seemed never to contribute to the attack while being out of position on defense.
Jeremy Hall: Hall did spend the game's last 25 minutes in defense, but his mindset was no different than when he was in midfield, given the Timbers' three-goal deficit when he took over left back for Wallace. He was still trying to attack, he just had Alhassan roaming around the midfield in front of him.
Kevin Goldthwaite: Goldthwaite seemed to be a step behind everyone throughout the game, and was always seemingly a little bit out of position. Goldthwaite was unable to contain Omar Cummings, who ran wild on the first half; this reared its head most dramatically during the Rapids' first goal, when Goldthwaite and Wallace let Cummings slip out unscathed from the corner with the ball. He was subbed out for Horst at halftime, at which point Portland's defensive fortunes improved.
David Horst: Apart from sporting a rocking mustache, Horst did a good job in turning the tide in the Timbers' back line in the second half. However, two incidents stuck out to me in a negative way. One was when he got turned around by a Rapids striker during a counterattack; the other was when he bungled an exchange with Brown, leaving the ball free for a Rapids striker to take. It's hard to judge his contribution to the defense on its own, because of the Adam Moffat substitution that happened at the same time and because Colorado likely made a tactical switch after taking a three-goal lead into halftime. Still, Horst impressed more with his defense than Goldthwaite did.
Eric Brunner: As much havoc as Cummings wreaked in Portland's defense, Conor Casey was relatively silent. This can be attributed to Brunner and Timbers captain Jack Jewsbury. In fact, Brunner was the man who drew Casey's yellow card in the 36th minute. Brunner was running around like a warrior, doing his best to mop up everybody else's messes. Tragically for the Timbers, there was only one of him, and the Rapids' striker tandem had him outnumbered. Brunner seemed to be Portland's only MLS-ready defender on the field.
Steve Purdy: Purdy did a good job of bombing down the flanks, especially in the second half. He was playing at right back behind right midfielder Ryan Pore, who is not known for his defensive prowess, yet Purdy seemed to be the more threatening player offensively on the right. Purdy's probing runs were the one thing Portland could count on offensively in the second half. Defensively, Purdy's play was solid, not crushing the team. None of the Rapids' goals started out on his flank, and none was his responsibility.
Jack Jewsbury: The captain spent much of his night stifling the central midfield of the Rapids while also tracking back to help Brunner contain Casey. He wasn't much of an offensive threat, mostly because of his great defensive responsibilities. When Portland faces teams with less attacking ability, Jewsbury will be able to contribute more on offense. Today, as evidenced by the three-goal Colorado outburst, was not a day for him to be a playmaker. In that respect, it's probably best for the Timbers that Jewsbury's name didn't come up often.
Peter Lowry: In contrast to Jewsbury's productive anonymity, Lowry's anonymity wasn't good for the team's defense. Though it wasn't getting gashed through the back end of the midfield in the same way Colorado's attack left Portland's defense hemorrhaging goals, the team's midfield play improved offensively and defensively once Lowry left the pitch. The same caveat that applied to the Goldthwaite-Horst swap applies to Lowry and Adam Moffat, as the two swaps' effects were intertwined. However, the impact made by Moffat after the break is in itself an indictment of Lowry's play.
Adam Moffat: I'm not one for anecdotal evidence, but when my father can point out how many plays someone makes in a soccer game, it's pretty obvious. (There's a lot of things I can say about my father as a sports fan, but the guy's not all that into soccer. It's probably the eighth- or ninth-highest-ranking sport on his list of things to watch.) He did so with Moffat's play in the second half, saying, "He seems to be in on every play." In fact, the substituted midfielder did seem to be everywhere for the Timbers, making plays throughout the back line and midfield. Moffat's intensity and energy manifested itself when he was the player who drew Pablo Mastroeni's second-half yellow card. That spark was missing when Lowry was on the field in the first half.