After drumming away at a tight, compact Montreal Impact defense for 93 frustrating minutes Saturday night at Jeld-Wen Field, Darlington Nagbe released a bruising, busting run through the center of the box, and laid the ball off to substitute forward Jose Valencia. The Columbian was wide open, 12 yards from goal. It was a forward's dream chance. And Valencia went to pieces. With the final kick of the game, a would-be fearsome drive to salvage a point against the Canadian visitors, Valencia passed a shot that defined weak on the ground, straight at Troy Perkins, the opposition goalkeeper in Portland for the first time. The final whistle came seconds later, and when it did, Valencia collapsed onto the ground. It was that kind of night. The Portland Timbers fell to Montreal 2-1, finishing a disappointing one-point opening home-stand of the 2013 season.
There were many similarities from the scintillating 3-3 opening day draw with the New York Red Bulls to the loss to the Impact Saturday night. Portland, again, displayed Caleb Porter’s panache in their stylish play, dominating time of possession and outshooting their opponent by more than two to one. The Timbers' attacking trifecta of Nagbe, Diego Valeri, and Ryan Johnson awed with sterling passing triangles, and Diego Chara and Will Johnson set the game from their central midfield positions. Portland spent most of the game on the front foot, and spent all of the game with a feeling that they were the better team.
The defensive precariousness, however, carried over as well. The all-to-familiar tale of the Timbers giving up early goals and digging themselves into large deficits was back too. The biggest difference between game one and game two of the Caleb Porter era was the Timbers lack of drive and punchiness in the opposition box. For 75 minutes, Portland's passing was nice, but too much of it was backwards and ultimately ineffective. The Timbers pounded the Red Bulls into submission on opening weekend; against the Impact, the Timbers made no real impact. The Timbers didn't get into dangerous positions consistently and didn't finish with authority. That made Montreal's job easy.
There is a common blueprint for beating possession teams: Pack players behind the ball, then unfurl and counter-attack quickly. The Impact executed. After a beautiful stunner of a bicycle kick from Hassoun Camara to open the scoring, the goal that won the game was a smash-and-grab break in which Montreal simply out-numbered Portland's scrambling defense, and Felipe got lost in the shuffle. His finish to make it 2-0 was simple, and on a night in which Diego Valeri was pocketed by the superb Patrice Bernier, and the Impact played full of confidence after beating Seattle the previous weekend, the odds were always against Portland getting two goals.
And yet Portland did almost get two goals. As they minutes ticked on - past the point where the Timbers started finding joy against the Red Bulls and into the last quarter-hour - the urgency picked up, and the Timbers instantly got more dangerous. Instead of circling Montreal's box without making a real thrust at the goal for minutes on end, Portland started pinging the ball around and making more purposeful runs. The goal was textbook - Diego Chara with a lovely switch to Ben Zemanski, who put a driving cross in a dangerous area, and the Ryan Johnson, outstanding all night, attacked the ball and slid it in from the goalmouth. The Timbers started playing like that too late Saturday night.
After the sweeping exhilaration of the draw with New York, the professional Impact exposed the very much present flaws in Caleb Porter's system. The Timbers slowly building possession game - too patient until the final minutes last night - sucked more and more players into the attack, further up the field for Portland, and left the back exposed to be hit with quick counters when the Timbers lost the ball. Porter's tactics left something to be desired as well: Kalif Alhasson, ineffective against New York, was yanked after a half for former Akron Zip Zemanski. The introduction of Zemanski and the resulting formation change gave the Timbers more oomph in the midfield, but they were already controlling possession - surely they needed another forward or winger to break open the game at that stage? It'll be interesting to see how much faith Porter has in his 4-5-1/4-3-3 going forward - or if he makes a switch to two out and out strikers.
By no means is this time to panic. The soccer is still light-years better than it was in the franchise's first two years, and the Timbers did outplay Montreal – they should have had a penalty, a shocking no-call the crown jewel of another inept MLS refereeing performance. Portland’s style dictated the game, and results should follow. But a draw and a loss is not the kind of home form the Timbers need if they want to come close to the playoffs this year. Porter and his team know that. Portland is in Seattle next week for a game that will dwarf in importance and meaning the first two games of the year. Win there and all will be forgiven. Lose, and the inquisitions will start.
The Portland Timbers lost at home for the first time since July 28th, 2012 Saturday night. Yet the glass is still half full. It was fun to watching the Timbers not throw up their arms down the stretch against Montreal, instead reinvigorating their cause with another furious fight-back. For a club that is accustomed to blowing leads, it's nice to see that this iteration of the Portland Timbers play with belief and skill as games ware down. The defense hasn't gelled as quickly as the offense has, and as they knew back-line becomes familiar with each other, the Timbers should be tighter at the back.
Yes, Saturday night was a loss, but it's time to move on. In the Sounders, Portland next plays a team that was flummoxed by Montreal in just the same way they were. But unlike the last time the Timbers ventured into CenturyLink Field and got flattened in an embarrassing 3-0 demolition, does anyone think Portland can't win?