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Four Thoughts from San Jose

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The Timbers rallied from the brink of regular-season elimination in San Jose on Saturday night.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

1. The team isn’t without faults, but these Timbers are unflappable.

This past week on Soccer Made in Portland, I predicted the Portland Timbers would lose to Toronto FC again this week. I thought that missing Will Johnson and Diego Valeri last week’s loss to Toronto would be too much for the Timbers to overcome in seven days.

But when Portland stepped on the field in San Jose, they were the same Timbers we’ve seen in many of their best performances down the stretch. Patient. Controlled. Disciplined.  Portland held 59% of the ball and completed 79% of their passes in the first half at Buck Shaw Stadium, stringing together 227 passes largely through the midfield while waiting for opportunities to present themselves.

In a half of football that could have easily flown off the rails, the Timbers exerted good control over the proceedings in a way reminiscent of similarly disciplined first halves against Vancouver (twice), Colorado, and Toronto FC. The Timbers’ ability to put the borderline disaster of last weekend behind them and impose their will on this game without their captain and their best player showed considerable resolve.

The Timbers displayed that resolve again in the second half, this time unlike the disappointing results in Colorado and Toronto. After conceding a goal to San Jose by way of Chris Wondolowski, the Timbers promptly righted the ship from what had been a sleepy return from intermission. In the four five-minute possession intervals subsequent to Wondolowski’s goal, the Timbers held 65.2%, 81.5%, 48.9%, and 68.4% of the ball. Not coincidentally, the Timbers found themselves 2-1 up at the end of that period.

2. Ben Zemanski earned his salary – and then some – on Saturday.

After a week in which questions swirled around Zemanski’s ability to fill the hole left by Johnson’s injury, Zemanski emphatically showed he is more than capable of stepping into the Timbers midfield beside Diego Chara. Caleb Porter gushed about his Akron man’s performance after the game:

"I thought he was very good. I thought he was very good. Can’t remember him losing a ball in possession. Sharp. Clean. I thought he got around, won a lot of balls. Him and Chara were exceptional in there. I thought they were flawless, and I thought that was a big part of us controlling the game in the midfield."

Whereas Chara and Johnson tend to operate as complimentary individuals in midfield, Zemanski and Chara frequently ganged up on unsuspecting San Jose midfielders, with Zemanski standing the Quake up and Chara coming away with the ball. With Zemanski as the veritable stick-up man and Chara the bagman, together they robbed San Jose’s midfield some 20 times. Even when Chara was engaged in an at-times epic battle with Matias Perez Garcia – who, by the way, is a joy to watch in person – Zemanski was more than capable of holding his own.

At a shade over $80,000, Zemanski’s salary is one of the most reasonable on the Timbers, which will make him an attractive target for expansion teams in the offseason. But for the Timbers – who will be loathe to lose Zemanski – he was worth every penny and more on Saturday night, as he showed he has what it takes to stand in midfield in the Captain’s stead.

3. The Timbers defense was good.

The Timbers have really struggled in 2014 against direct opponents. From Cubo Torres to Will Bruin to, yes, Chris Wondolowski, the Timbers have allowed some forehead-slapping goals to target strikers floating unmarked in the box and finding the end of a deep cross.

There was none of that for San Jose on Saturday. Even the one goal the Timbers conceded was a far cry from the wide-open spaces Wondolowski found for the Quakes’ third in Portland. This time it was a great cross from Shea Salinas fitting a ball for Wondolowski into a tiny window between Liam Ridgewell and Jorge Villafana. While Ridgewell could – and should – have been tighter to Wondolowski when the ball came in, it’s hard to imagine anything but Salinas’ high, looping cross into that exact spot doing the trick for San Jose.

Otherwise, the Timbers defense had a pretty clean run through the game. San Jose had a handful of chances, but nothing terribly clear. Indeed, the best chances of the game for San Jose came off rebounds falling to Chris Wondolowski, including the goal. Otherwise, chances were far from ubiquitous for San Jose.

Oh, and the phoenix of a set-piece-defending crisis Timbers supporters were concerned had risen from the ashes in the second half in Toronto? Nowhere to be seen, as the Timbers were nearly flawless in an aspect of the game San Jose is eager to capitalize upon.

Porter summed it up postgame:

"I was really pleased with our defending today. We’ve taken a lot of valid abuse for not defending well, but I thought we were exceptional today defensively."

4. Saturday was another step forward, but this time the Timbers can’t step back.

After the Timbers dug themselves a substantial hole by failing to win a game in the first two months of the season, I thought the only realistic way Portland could make the playoffs would be to go on a lengthy run of form in which the Timbers racked up considerable points.

And today the Timbers sit one point below the red line – very much in playoff contention, even if the job is far from done. That run of great form hasn’t come, however. Rather, Saturday night was the most recent step forward in a plodding playoff run that began in May and has been replete with seemingly seminal wins and equally deflating losses and draws.

This pattern of taking a step back for every step-and-a-half forward, however, can’t continue in the Timbers’ last three games. The Timbers face two arguably must-win games in their last homestand of the season, as after Vancouver travels to Seattle next weekend they face an eminently manageable run-in with games at San Jose and home with Colorado. Although there are circumstances in which FC Dallas’ lack of motivation may make the Timbers final game in Big D a little bit more winnable than otherwise, the Timbers would be loathe to head into the final round of the MLS regular season sitting below the red line.

So, while Saturday’s rally was undeniably a step forward in the face of considerable adversity, the Timbers simply can’t afford another step back.