There has been a few second halves this year where every time the Timbers cued up for an attack, you felt they were going to score. We had that feeling last weekend in Kansas City, the same euphoric anticipation felt in the second half against New York on opening day, and the second half against Houston.
Thursday night against the New England Revolution, when the Timbers started going forward in the second half, time draining off the clock, nerves ratcheting up in a game that never felt close until the final whistle, it was merely a hope that they were going to score. For all their stylish midfield play, dominant possession, confident foreplay and shots – so, so many shots – there was never an inevitability that the Timbers were going to get a breakthrough goal. And when time ran out, zeros remained on the scoreboard.
From the minute of the game, a minute in which the Timbers did not relinquish possession of the ball, a gulf in class was obvious. Portland was quicker, had better anticipation, and better movement than New England. In the first 15 minutes of the game, the Timbers ran circles around the Revs. It was easy.
The period of dominance culminated with Diego Chara slipping Darlington Nagbe through on goal. Against Sporting KC, the Timbers were absolutely lethal on through balls, capitalizing for their last two goals. Against New England, Nagbe’s finish lacked inventiveness or sizzle – he could only shoot straight into the body of the onrushing Bobby Shuttleworth.
Those first 15 minutes are where overmatched teams start the process of holding superior teams at bay for 0-0 and 1-1 draws. The Timbers didn’t open the floodgates when they had the chance, and then Portland took their foot off the gas. The rest of the first half was played without intent or intensity – Portland expected a goal to walk right into their lap, such was the advantage in possession and attacking class.
For a team used to playing with their back against the wall, from behind, and late in games, the Timbers didn’t rise to their best trying to put one past Mr. Shuttleworth. Passes were just a little sloppy, touches just an inch or two off.
As it started to dawn on Portland that it was going to be a real fight to get a goal – New England has a special fondness for 0-0 road draws – performance improved, and the best chance fell to Ryan Johnson, who volleyed a low Rodney Wallace cross right at Shuttleworth.
The Timbers just weren’t sharp in the final third – they never found a killer final ball, or a cool finish. It was a huge departure from the free-scoring team we’ve become accustomed to the last few weeks.
Porter’s substitutions didn’t help. Fredrique Piquonne looked rusty, and while he brought energy to the came, his crosses and shots were wayward, and he didn’t work as hard as Johnson to hold up the ball and set up attacks.
Porter also went to the Kalif Alhassan trump-card much too late. With New England rapidly tiring, the game was crying out for Alhassan – the one player the Timbers have who can cut open a fatigued defense, leave five players for dead and win the game.
For all the Timbers good play around the box, they didn’t get the ball in the box enough, because Valeri, Nagbe, Johnson and Chara are all central players who like to drift around the box, and Rodney Wallace, while he played well, isn’t a good enough dribbler to bypass players and get in the area.
Alhassan is the man who can take the ball and get wherever he wants to go. Once he was brought on, he almost made two game-winning runs in 10 minutes. He was a dynamo when he touched the ball – in the final minutes, there was no one the Timbers would rather have had in possession.
That’s certainly not to say the Timbers didn’t have chances. There were drives from Chara, Nagbe and Valeri, but New England held firm. Shuttleworth was especially good – the man who has replaced longtime goalkeeper Matt Reis in net had impeccable positioning, and didn’t allow any dangerous rebounds.
Actually, the very best chance of the game fell to New England in the frenzied final salvo of the match. Andrew Jean-Baptiste was caught out of position, and New England played into a 2 v. 1, which they executed to put substitute Saer Sene through on goal.
The forward cascaded towards Ricketts, and unleashed a cool finish – low, well placed in the bottom left corner. It’s a goal that has been scored thousands of times. Ricketts was beaten, and so were the Timbers. But just as the ball passed the ‘keeper, Ricketts’ threw himself to the ground, lunged out and arm, and produced an absolute wonder-save.
It was shockingly good. World-class. For a big, bulky 6’5 goalkeeper, in no-man’s land to dive to the ground in that amount of time speaks to Ricketts’ reaction time, wingspan and sheer goalkeeping ability. There is no harder save to make in soccer.
When the final whistle blew, it brought an end to an extremely frustrating night at Jeld-Wen. The Timbers fired off more shots than some teams competing in the NHL playoffs, yet failed to find the back of the net.
Portland has come up with so many late goals this season, but they just didn’t quite have the class in the final third to beat New England. Except for Ricketts, no one played their finest game.
When you’re on an unbeaten run like the Timbers are, you don’t want anything to change. Not the team, not the substitutions, not the playing schedule, not the ball boys, nothing.
But it was a mid-week game for the Timbers, their first of the year, and they may have lost Mikael Silvestre, who has been simply superb this season. Not just with his play on the field, but also the way he has integrated himself into the team with effort, character, and an ability to connect with his teammates. We’ve seen so many foreign stars come to MLS and treat it the wrong way. Not Silvestre. If he’s out for an extended period of time, the Frenchman will be dearly, dearly missed.
While the Timbers were muted Thursday night, they did extend their franchise-record unbeaten run to seven games. Yes, it was an extremely frustrating evening. An off night. You wouldn’t bet on it happening again.