Everything was set up for the Portland Timbers to open their 2014 MLS season up with a bang.
Home openers have been special for the Timbers. The team has never scored less than three goals in their first home game of a season, and what’s more, the kind of relentless rain that we saw Saturday night punctuated more than one of those memorable nights.
There was a terrific tifo, and a fantastic rendition of the national anthem from the Timbers Army. There were classy new kits, and exciting new players.
Of course, the Timbers had a clunky preseason in which obvious flaws with the inevitable title-charge that we figured was going to be the end result of 2014 were made clear – but there was a prevailing feeling that a team of talented individuals would turn it on under the bright lights.
You know, opening night. In the rain.
Instead, it was a languid, insipid, frustrating performance from a team that is lacking for chemistry and dynamism.
For 93 minutes, it was more of the same troubles that haunted the team’s Rose City Invitational: Lack of width, lack of a #9, a clogged middle of the field, an overall lack of sharpness, and a long struggle to convert half-chances.
But it’s soccer, and one moment – one second – often makes the difference.
It was a relief, and a point, but little more than that.
It’s easy to say that the late goal was magic, but Portland knows real magic. Remember last years’ playoff tifo against Seattle?
Fernandez’s goal was a lucky moment. A good moment for sure, but opening day magic was roaring back against New York in 2013, or that onslaught in the rain against this Philly team in 2012, or the landslide of goals and memories against Chicago in 2011.
Credit certainly goes to the Union – they played very well, and looked light-years ahead of the Timbers in terms of integrating their new signings into their team.
What’s frustrating is that person for person, the Timbers have the ability to crush a team like Philadelphia, just as they had the ability to crush San Jose and Vancouver with their first-team in the preseason.
From those three games, the Timbers have no goals from open play, and seemingly no Plan B for when things aren’t working.
Maxi Urruti played his best game. He ran all over the place, chased every play, turned the ball over, and was productive when he got it. But at no point did he look like he was going to score.
That’s your striker. And Urruti is your striker when he drops into the midfield to pick up the ball and sends you into a 4-6-0.
The Timbers are going to have a hard time breaking teams down by connecting passes through the middle, but they don’t have much of an option, because the chances that they will connect crosses is minuscule.
There are no wingers. There is no target forward.
From the 75th minute on, Portland picked it up and were very good. The change started when Kalif Alhassan came on for Urruti, and Darlington Nagbe was pushed as wide as he’s ever played in a green jersey.
But even when the Timbers did find some width and got to good positions to cross, there was no #9 in the area to finish.
It’s what we’d seen from this team in preseason, and it turns that there is no on-switch to flick when the games start to count.
Maybe Fernandez’s goal galvanizes the team, but you have to be skeptical. It was a smart play from Will Johnson to fire in a quick corner – a decision that was perhaps influenced by the ticking clock – and Philadelphia fell asleep.
Look, it’s not time to panic. That was the first of many games. But this team has to figure it out, and sooner rather than later.
There was difference in the quality of play against Philadelphia from what we saw in the preseason. Are there just too many players who do the same things in the team’s front four?
The spine of the team did their job – goalkeeper, center-backs (especially Norberto Paparatto, who was impressive), and center-midfielders (especially Diego Chara, who never fails to impress) – but the spine stops short. It doesn’t extend to a striker.
Frederic Piquionne, an unused substitute again, clearly doesn’t feature in Porter’s plans, and so the 2013 Coach of the Year will more or less have to dance with the players he played against the Union.
It was encouraging to see Steve Zakuani make his debut, and he’s a player who can open up the field and play as a winger when he’s fully fit. Rodney Wallace was missed too, but he won’t be back until May at the earliest.
Set pieces were once again a problem – the Timbers gave up all their goals in the preseason from dead-ball situations, and that’s how Philadelphia scored their goal in the 64th minute. A double-headed corner kick – and it’s never good when an opponent wins two consecutive headers in your box.
In the attacking box, it was both a lack of killer instinct and a killer lack of instinct that hurt Portland, who were poor in the final third until the last kick of the game.
The Timbers had a lot of possession, but it was useless possession. Philadelphia had the three best chances of the game from open play.
For the Timbers, everything was a touch slow. It was a far cry from Porter’s first game – against New York in March 2013 – when the Timbers scored three, and looked effortlessly threatening each time they had the ball.
Obviously, this team has a lot of individual talent. But right now, it’s just individual talent that has zero rhythm and few ideas.
In the end, Fernandez got the goal. The Timbers got a point. That’s soccer.
The problem is, you don’t get to start over. Opening day has come and gone, and one great second doesn’t erase a 93-minute dud.