When the Portland Timbers are just a touch off their game, you can sense it. The passing isn’t as purposeful, or crisp. The play isn’t as poised, and the players aren’t as ready to pounce.
At their best, the Timbers can score on every possession. When they’re a notch below that level, they’re about as good every other team in MLS. And things get interesting.
Saturday afternoon at BC Place in Vancouver, things were just a touch off. The Timbers can and will dominate possession in every game they play, but when they’re not buzzing – an occurrence that is frequent on the road – that possession is slow and listless.
It was Vancouver who brought the game to life on multiple occasions, Camilo and Nigel Reo-Coker especially effervescent. It was a game that always looked like it would have goals, and it ended up having four, but it was also a game that debunked the notion that scoring equals excitement in soccer.
The game was played without any palpable intensity and it lacked gravitas and panache – it certainly didn’t feel like a rivalry game, and when you consider that Vancouver is merely the ugly stepchild of the Portland – Seattle MLS rivalry, that makes sense.
After all, Vancouver has never beaten either of its Cascadia foes in an MLS game. In years one and two, wherever the two teams were in the table, Portland would own the Whitecaps. That almost changed on Saturday, but Vancouver was done-in by a general leakiness at the back as they couldn’t shut the game down with authority. That’s been their MLS nature. And it perfectly set up the Timbers’ new MLS nature.
The evening started with confusion when the two teams walked onto the field in very similarly colored uniforms. There was almost no contrast between the Timbers were red – read, mostly white – away kit with Vancouver’s white home kit.
It was an ominous sign. The Timbers were unbeaten in green at BC Place.
After 24 frivolous minutes, the Brazilian Camilo opened the scoring. After being fouled by Will Johnson on the edge of the penalty area, Camilo bent a superb free-kick past a helpless Donovan Ricketts. It was a fine moment for Camilo, who has had a stop-start three years in Vancouver – at his best, he is an annoying, flitting, skilled menace up top, and he was at his best Saturday night.
The Timbers easily controlled the ball, and were able to create space in attacking areas, but the two chief creators of the Chivas USA throttling last weekend, Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, were off their game.
Nagbe was knocked out of the game after 34 non-descript minutes, while Valeri’s passing accuracy was lacking, as was his control of the game. Without the Timbers two most talented players pulling the strings, the attack wasn’t as menacing or punchy.
Still, with Vancouver not exactly running a tight ship at the back, it always felt like a Timbers goal was inevitable, and it came in the 62nd minute, when a Will Johnson shot struck the arm of experienced Ireland international Andy O’Brian. Johnson’s penalty was the epitome of silky, a snaking shot whisked easily into the left side netting.
The Timbers were only level for a few fleeting seconds. Gershon Koffie, teed up from 18 yards, hit a stunning curler of a goal to give the Whitecaps a 2-1 lead. It was the kind of individual skill the Timbers were missing on the day – in fact, both the Whitecaps’ goals came from individual brilliance.
It was the referee who ended up making an individual mistake that seemed to end the game. Nigel Reo-Coker hit a hopeful heave out of the Vancouver half in the 79th minute, which Camilo and Futty both ran under. As the ball fell, Camilo tumbled, and the referee did not hesitate in brandishing a red card for Futty, the last defender.
If it was a foul, Futty deserved to be sent-off. But it wasn’t a foul. Rather, it was a foul – except Futty had been fouled, he hadn’t committed the foul. As the two players ran under the ball, Camilo stepped into Futty’s path, sending both players to the ground. It was an innocuous tangling of legs, it anything a foul on Camilo, who made the challenge.
From his position, almost half a field behind the play, the referee could not possibly have seen the particulars of the sequence. Tellingly, the linesman closest to the play did not raise his flag for foul. The referee assumed Futty brought down Camilo, which was clearly the wrong assumption.
If the MLS Disciplinary Committee reviews the red card, it should be overturned. In the moment, it looked as if the sending off had retired the Timbers’ record MLS winning streak, but Jose Valenica’s re-announcement of his presence to the Timbers was a match-saving one.
Valenica’s eventual equalizer developed much the same way as the play got Futty sent off developed. A high, hopeful ball from a star midfielder – this time Will Johnson instead of Reo-Coker – that a forward bounded over. Valencia controlled the ball, and fortunately had Alan Rochat sprawling the wrong way, as Valencia coolly pulled the ball back, and slotted home his first ever MLS goal.
The finish was a long-time coming for Valencia, who started the year in the playing rotation, but fell to the reserves with a gaping stoppage time miss against Montreal and the arrival of Frederic Piquonne. The chance Valencia took in Vancouver was exactly the kind of chance he wasn’t converting earlier in the year.
With Piquonne’s struggles as of late, Valencia appears to have played his way back into the team. Last season, El Trincito was a designated player, but his career was grounded by a preseason knee injury and an arrest for domestic violence. His salary dropped by tens of thousands of dollars, along with his status as a DP, but this season has been a bounce-back year. May it, along with the Timbers’ points streak, continue.