The Portland Timbers 2 did their part this past weekend to secure a perfect 9 point weekend for all professional teams in the Rose City. With a victory at home for the Timbers, T2 were next up. And their opponent, Sacramento Republic were coming to Merlo Field undefeated and having not allowed a single goal against yet this season. On paper it looked like the visitors would walk away with all 3 points. But T2 got their first shutout and first points of the season as they ground out a 1-0 home win behind a strong defensive performance. The Portland Thorns capped off a weekend full of soccer with a 2-1 win over the Orlando Pride.
If you watched the first team play Saturday night, you saw quite a lot of "back and forth" as the midfield for both teams were almost nonexistent. Team A would collect possession at the edge of their box, move the ball upfield without hardly any issue, only to get dispossessed at the top of the box for Team B. Then Team B would work the ball the other direction, until they lost possession at the top of the box for Team A. Rinse, and repeat. That was basically the first half of the first team's performance on Saturday night in a nutshell. It was also nearly a carbon copy of the first half performance for the second team as well.
Both teams lacked sharpness in their passing in the first half. Sacramento had the better chances as they out shot the hosts 5-1 before halftime. It was a bit surprisingly to see Sacramento lacking sharpness. It was expected that they would come in and outplay T2. In a manner they did, but their stagnant offense (having only scored 2 goals in 3 games prior to this) were unable to find answers for the visitors. Of the 5 shots taken, only one was on target. The hosts only got one shot off in the first half and that was not on target.
But the hosts would start the second half as well as one could've hoped for. In the 46th minute, Kharlton Belmar put his team in the lead, getting his first tally of the season. He pressured defender Derek Foran (full disclosure: in replay, there could be an argument that Belmar fouled Foran to get the ball) and was able to take the ball off the feet of the last defender. With only keeper Dominic Jakubek between him and the goal, the keeper stood his ground in no man's land instead of rushing Belmar to try to make himself large. This gave Belmar the time and space needed to take a single touch and line up for a calm, bending shot into the back of the net. It was T2's only shot of the second half, and Belmar made it count. Sacramento Republic got 7 more shots in the second half giving them a 12-2 domination in shots taken over the hosts. Belmar's conversion of the only shot on target the team got was the difference between getting and not getting all three points.
Sacramento had subbed on San Jose's Tommy Thompson and Adam Jahn to start the second half, which gave the visitors a much needed boost. But Belmar put them at a disadvantage early. Throughout the second half the visitors pressed for an equalizer or more, but the T2 defense withstood the maroon onslaught. Probably the best chance for the visitors came in the 62nd minute when Tommy Thompson got a bicycle kick off in the T2 box and had it go over Wade Hamilton destined for the back of the net. But Brent Richards had his keeper's back as he got in behind and put his head to the ball and out for a Sacramento corner. Nick Besler followed up that goal line clearance with another goal line clearance from the resulting corner kick. And then in the 75th minute, Wade Hamilton made a double save to deny Sacramento further opportunity. Tommy Thompson again had a strong shot on goal but Hamilton was able to get down and collect the loose ball. Adam Jahn slid in to try to get the loose ball before Hamilton could get to it but he was a half second too late and slid into Hamilton instead of the ball. The referee ran over and gave a straight red card without hesitation. And despite being down a man and a goal, Sacramento continued to press in the final 15 minutes, but were unable to find any answers for the T2 defense that afternoon.
Let's Talk Defense
We will give particular focus to the T2 defense today. They were able to secure their first shutout of the 2016 season and were a big reason for T2 being able to end their three game home stand with all 3 points against a previously undefeated Sacramento Republic. And make no mistake, the Republic are a very talented and experienced USL side. One that is clamoring to get into MLS (and deserves to get to MLS far more than most sides either pending or hoping for a future expansion slot).
Andrew Gregor had this to say about his team's defensive performance on Sunday:
Well, I thought that the defense did well against a team that is very, very experienced. Their attack has players, especially in the second half when the bring on two MLS guys, that are guys that play in the MLS. Tommy Thompson started for San Jose on Wednesday, so he’s a quality player. I thought that even though we were under some pressure, I thought we did a good job and that’s part of the learning process too. We scored the first goal and then maybe got away a little bit from playing because there’s still a lot of time in the game. But, that’s something that we can learn from.
The T2 defense was strong. Withstanding 5 shots in the first half, allowing only one to be on target and then holding 7 shots with 4 on target out of the net in the second half. The biggest reason for the increase in shots on target for the visitors was Tommy Thompson. The inclusion of Tommy Thompson and Adam Jahn in the second half really boosted the visitors ability to generate not only chances, but good chances on frame. And for a defense that had allowed 7 goals again in the previous three matches, with 3 of them being a penalty kick in each game, it was a major step forward for them to get the shutout. Especially against MLS talents Thompson and Jahn. It was certainly a big help that Hamilton was able to collect the loose ball right before Jahn came sliding in trying to get to it first. The red card to Jahn helped neuter an attack that was really pressing for an equalizer and could have gotten something.
Not only was Wade Hamilton up to the task but his defenders worked together throughout the match communicating far better than they had been while also backing up their main man in goal. Brent Richards and Nick Besler both helped out Hamilton with goal line clearances in the 62nd minute to help keep the clean sheet.
Hamilton has been showing that he is a very strong keeper with a leaky defense in front of him. So with this first shutout, it should give both the keeper and the defense in front him some much needed confidence going into a three game road trip. Especially with short rest and travel coming up for the first two road trips.
Four more saves tallied for the first team's 3rd string keeper. He continues to show confidence in coming off his line and bossing his 6 yard box. A shutout will help with confidence but probably more for the defenders than the keeper himself. Despite allowing 7 goals in 4 games, Hamilton is a great goalkeeping prospect. He still needs to work on his communication with his defense as they continue to look to be on different pages at times. All of which will just take lots of time and game minutes to work on.
One problem that is coming up though will be the current keeper situation with the first team. Depending on how long Kwarasey could be out with an injured hand, very capable backup Jake Gleeson will take over in goal. And that leaves Wade Hamilton to cover the GK bench spot. Which means T2 might end up seeing McIntosh or Luthy in goal in one or two of their upcoming road games. The Timbers don't play again until Wednesday the 27th in New England, and the T2 road trip is April 20th at OC Blues, April 23rd at Tulsa, and April 30th at Arizona United. It is possible Hamilton could feature for all three and still travel to New England to make the bench but that is a LOT of travel so it is really unknown what the teams will do. Hamilton seems likely to feature against the Orange County Blues but after that it will be questionable.
Belmar got his first start of the season and played 87 minutes. Making the most of his only shot of the match, Belmar was his usual self harassing the backline and trying to pick the pockets of the defenders or beat the keeper to a back pass, or deflect a goal kick. And he was rewarded in the 46th minute by taking the ball from defender Derek Foran and calmly slotting his only shot of the match into the goal.
Usually the T2 offense gets a spark when Belmar comes on as a substitute but I did not see that in this match. The entire offense was extremely quiet throughout the match. I think a main part of this was just how strong the Sacramento defense is. Belmar's goal is the only goal they have given up all season (4 total games) which is most impressive considering they shutout the Whitecaps 2 team in Canada.
The offense also completely went to sleep once they got their goal and most everyone spent the second half defending as Sacramento took it into high gear to press for at least an equalizer if not more. But regardless of the lack of offensive production in this match, it is undeniable that the first Belmar start of the season coincides with T2's first obtained points in 2016.
T2 Midfield Triumvirate
Just some quick notes on the midfield three for T2 as well. Andre Lewis continues to incrementally improve. While passing wasn't sharp across the whole team and the offense was almost non-existent, Lewis stood out to me once or twice in the match with some good moves in an effort to try to spark a counter.
Nick Besler was a ghost and I didn't even notice him until the 32nd minute. I'm not sure if that is a good or bad thing. With Sacramento pressing as much as they were anytime they got the ball it seems like I should've noticed Besler's defensive efforts earlier. But it isn't like I noticed him making any mistakes either. And in the first half, only 1 of the 5 Sacramento shots were on goal. So I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was quietly doing his job well. Especially since he had a goal line clearance in the 62nd minute to help his team secure the shutout.
Dylan Damraoui only got 65 minutes before being subbed off for Christian Duarte. It was a quiet performance from him as well, but outside of an overall lack of sharpness from the team, nothing stood out as too exciting nor too damning for the young midfielder. With two more games this week, Damraoui was likely subbed off so that he could be fresh for the two road matches this week, so we should still get to see plenty of Damraoui before the week is over.
T2 get their own 3 game week this week following the first team's 3 game week last week. After getting some much needed confidence and all 3 points on Sunday, T2 will travel to Irvine, California to take on the Orange County Blues this Wednesday, April 20th with a 7:30 pm PT kickoff. Following the mid week match, they will travel to Oklahoma to take on the Tulsa Roughnecks on Saturday, April 23rd. That game has a 5:00 pm PT kickoff.
After these two road trips in quick succession, T2 will get a full week before finishing their 3 game road trip in the Phoenix area, taking on Arizona United on Saturday, April 30th with a 7:30 pm PT kickoff.