The first few minutes of the game were slow for both teams, with neither side looking confident on the ball. Vancouver tried a few long balls over the top for Camilo Sanvezzo, but they were far too sloppy and ended up each time in the hands of Timbers keeper Donovan Ricketts.
In the sixth minute, Vancouver created their first -- and only -- shot on target of the game. Kenny Miller attracted both Timbers center backs to the left side of Portland's penalty area. Miller passed back to Barry Robson, who took a touch to set up a lofty ball to the back post, where Camilo was waiting to redirect it. Ricketts had to sprawl to his left against his momentum to come up with the save.
The story for much of the first half, and indeed the match overall, was the Vancouver Whitecaps physical style of play. The Timbers appeared ready for the challenge from the outset. One of the key matchups was between Camilo and Hanyer Mosquera, and in the tenth minute a yellow card for Hanyer Mosquera served as the opening salvo. Camilo would eventually receive a yellow as well, for persistent infringement, albeit after Mosquera had left the field.
The Timbers defense began dangerously to fall apart in the 14th minute, highlighted by a bizarre backpass by Steven Smith that might have gone for an own goal if not for Ricketts' quick reflexes. Steven Smith had a rough first half overall, putting some lousy touches on the ball, drilling some crosses right at Whitecaps players, and letting Matt Watson burn him in a key play in the 30th minute.
But the defense wasn't the only goat in the early going. The midfield, too, seemed quite unable to sustain possession early in the match, with Diego Chara and Sal Zizzo looking particularly unable to make the smart passes that might have generated some extended possession in the Vancouver half.
Still, the Timbers did manage to create a few chances, thanks to some clever poaching by Franck Songo'o. With Songo'o playing as a withdrawn striker, he and Bright Dike gave the Whitecaps backline problems all afternoon, picking off some errant passes and finding themselves on the end of some clearances out of the Portland defense. The play between the two of them lacked some creativity and, obviously, finishing, but their ability to create even a little out of nothing played a role in wearing out Jay Demerit and his band of thirty-somethings.
And indeed, starting in about the 35th minute, the tone of the match started to change. Darlington Nagbe, streaking across the pitch to pick up a short pass forward from Diego Chara, laid the ball off to Sal Zizzo, who finally managed to hit a Timber's head with an aerial cross. Bright Dike got on the end of it and forced a save from Brad Knighton nearly identical to the one Ricketts had contributed on the other end of the field twenty minutes earlier.
For the next five minutes the Timbers held possession in the Vancouver half and forced one error after another from their backline. The breakthrough came in the 39th minute.
Dike, surrounded and with nowhere to go in the right side of the penalty area, played the ball back to Diego Chara, who passed left Jack Jewsbury. Jewsbury laid the ball off to Nagbe, who immediately passed to Smith, streaking forward on the wing. Smith gave it a look like he was going to cross into Dike in the box, but instead went short to Songo'o, at the top of the penalty area. Songo'o steadied the ball before teeing it up for Jewsbury, who launched an absolute rocket into the far corner of the net. 1-0 for the Rose City.
Vancouver started to play more aggressively after giving up the goal, pressing forward impatiently. The Timbers defense responded calmly -- perhaps too calmly -- to the added pressure, creating counters and confidently holding onto possession. The half ended with some rare momentum heading into the second 45'.
The Timbers got some bad news right off the bat in the second half, after Mosquera landed awkwardly trying to jump up for a header. It didn't look like much more than just a bad sprain, but he left the field immediately in favor of Eric Brunner.
The Timbers took positive lessons from the first half and continued to play with the calm and confident rhythm they created after the 35th minute. No panicking on defense, no booting the ball upfield unless absolutely necessary. That allowed the team to maintain possession and get the ball past the high-pressing Vancouver midfield. Of course, getting the ball past the Whitecaps' defense was another challenge entirely.
Another consequence of an apparent 4-1-5 Vancouver formation was the free rein it gave to Darlington Nagbe, Franck Songo'o and Sal Zizzo to pass the ball around in Vancouver's half. That those chances only resulted in two shots, one on target, during the second 45' was disappointing, but the more important success was in maintaining pressure on the Whitecaps defense and making sure more Vancouver defenders didn't join their attack.
Each team made a substitution in the 67th minute, with Rodney Wallace coming on for Songo'o and Darren Mattocks replacing Camilo. Both players immediately made their presence known, with Mattocks giving an elbow to the back of Kimura's neck before contributing a shot off target with his head. Wallace's initial contribution was a foul on Matt Watson after Watson had burned past him. The resulting free kick produced two subsequent corners before the pressure abated.
The one dangerous chance Vancouver created in the second half also resulted somewhat from Wallace's flimsy defense. With Young Pyo Lee coming forward to attack, Wallace sensed a cross was coming and so flailed his body in front of its would-be path, leaving himself out of position as Lee cut in toward the middle, unmarked. Lee played the ball in to Barry Robson, whose Jewsbury-like strike skimmed just over the bar.
The remainder of the match was marked by several Timbers players collapsing to the ground in a heap and the referee reluctantly allowing the physios onto the pitch to cart them off, knowing full well they'd be hopping back onto their feet once they reached the sidelines. Yup.
Still, the Timbers are certainly not the only MLS team to employ such a strategy, and at the very least it frustrated the Whitecaps players and knocked them off their game. After a season full of late game collapses, I'll take a win however it may come.