PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 12: Members of the Portland Timbers hold up log slabs representing the goals scored as celebrate after the game against the Philadelphia Union at JELD-WEN Field on March 12, 2012 in Portland, Oregon. The Timbers won the game 3-1. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
It was a night to remember at Jeld Wen Field Monday night. I was there, in Section 108, for the Portland Boys; my fiancee was there for hugging; my beer was there for drinking. My five layers of clothing were there to keep me warm. With the exception of a woman sitting in front of me with a bizarre anti-redhead bias (although considering Lexi Lalas was on the premises, I can see her point), I had a great crowd in my immediate vicinity, Stumptown Footy reader smorris793 among them.
During the match I made the following observations:
- how quiet the Army got between the "whoa-o-oh-o-oh"s when singing "Onward Rose City" in near perfect unison
- the excitement that rose in the crowd whenever Jorge Perlaza or Rodney Wallace or Kalif Alhassan got into space with the ball
- the absolute outrage at the ref's refusal to call a handball or award a penalty when Perlaza was pulled down in the box
- the raw pain in my throat when trying to squawk out that last bit of euphoria after Kalif's goal.
There was one observation I made only after leaving the stadium, though: a distinct lack of abject terror during the Timbers Army ballads, "You are my Sunshine" and "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You."
I hardly need to remind Timbers fans of the unease we grew accustomed to feeling late in matches in 2011. By the time the 75th minute rolled around and that second set of opposing fresh legs entered the game, we often feared we were in for another fifteen of the longest minutes of our lives. There were times when the chants of "Blow the [effin] whistle!" commenced almost immediately after the 90 minute clock stopped ticking. Every second the game continued was a second the opposition might score.
Monday was different. When we got around to shouting those chants, it was only because we were wet, our arms were tired, and we just wanted to see Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Kris Boyd and Kalif Alhassan triumphantly hoist their slabs.
One of the more important statistics for the Timbers was percentage of possession, a performance indicator the Timbers rarely excelled at last year. The Match Stats page on mlssoccer.com reports that possession number at 55.6%. The first half possession was roughly the same number -- that in spite of the many inaccurate passes in the first half, including Kris Boyd's first three touches of the match, all of which led to turnovers. Yes, aside from those blips, the Timbers dominated possession throughout the match.
Of course, we saw the Timbers hold possession plenty in 2011 -- in the defensive half. By contrast, in the eighth minute of Monday's match, the Timbers exchanged a series of four passes among five players, all in and around the Philadelphia penalty area.
Visibly shivering ESPN half time analyst Kasey Keller pointed to this series as an example of the team taking too many touches in front of goal. I have a differing opinion. It didn't matter that they failed to score -- it demonstrated to the opposition that the boys in green could not only get the ball into a dangerous position but control it and move it around once they got there.
Also, I think ESPN needs to let Keller wear a hat when it's that cold.
Holding possession in those dangerous areas, as in the rest of the pitch, requires a ton of movement. At the defensive end, in contrast to 2011, we rarely saw defenders passively boot the ball forward into the middle of the field. Instead, they were one-touch passing the ball among themselves and the midfielders, clinically working their way up to the half-way line, and using the whole width of the pitch to do so.
This fast switching and overlapping and passing was a key part of the Timbers' success on the flanks as well. The ability of Wallace and Eric Alexander to move themselves and the ball around their defenders drew additional Union players to their side of the pitch, opening the opposite side for Alhassan and Lovel Palmer to do the same. By the end of the match the Timbers had almost free reign to control the ball right outside the 18'.
Taking possession is a prerequisite for holding possession, of course, and that's something the Timbers have mostly done well, especially since Chara settled into his role in the middle of last year. They aren't ones for simply standing back and holding ground. Just as they never stopped moving when controlling the ball, the Timbers never stopped moving when challenging for the ball.
Time and again the fullbacks teamed up with their counterparts on the wings to pin opponents on the sidelines and keep them out of the center of the pitch. The boys kept this up the whole game -- even in stoppage time, there was Jorge Perlaza, going well out of his way to chase down a ball destined for a goal kick, and winning a corner kick instead.
At the end of the match, all work the team did to keep the ball moving paid off. Everything the Timbers had done to challenge persistently for possession when they didn't have it, and maintain it when they did, culminated not so much in the goals they scored -- as Keller might have preferred -- but in the goals they did not concede in the final ten minutes.
And the Timbers Army were free to belt out their love songs to their hearts' content. Carefree, however close the score may be.