Obviously, few people in Portland are happy with the final result of the game, so it may be easy to overlook that the Portland Timbers’ gut-punching, literally last-minute 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake at Jeld-Wen Field this past Saturday was perhaps the best all-round game of soccer that the Timbers have played this season.
And they played it against one of the toughest opponents in the league—a team that handily dispatched both the Los Angeles Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls with their premier players still coming off the bench.
After the game—although he was very clear that the result was a blow to him and to the whole team—Coach John Spencer
told reporters he was pleased with the team’s performance. The Timbers “probably edged the first half,” he said, and dominated the second before the midfield eased off its forward pressure and allowed Real Salt Lake to reverse Portland’s one-goal lead by striking in the 89th and 92nd minutes.
When playing against a seasoned possession-oriented team like Salt Lake—which controlled the ball 61 percent of the game—a retention and containment strategy is likely to backfire. And in the game's final five minutes, that's what happened. Spencer’s failure to use his third substitution to either bring in a fresh-footed Bright Dike
up front or Mike Chabala
in the back as his team visibly flagged may have also been a contributing factor. So were Spencer’s limited options in subbing from a thinned-out midfield squad, with the absence of injured Sal Zizzo
and Kalif Alhassan
(both of whom were again practicing with the team this Monday).
But as for the rest of the game? There are some very good things to say. Here are five bright points and encouraging signs for the still-young season:
1. For the first time this season, the Timbers applied pressure from the start of the game. Yes, the Timbers went down a point for the fourth game in a row, with Salt Lake’s Saborio capitalizing on a penalty shot issued off a freak Rodney Wallace
handball. But the Timbers created as many open-field opportunities as Real Salt Lake during the first half, including two high, blistering shots on goal by Eric Alexander
outside the box and two close-to-the goal chances that Jorge Perlaza
was wrenchingly unable to finish.
2. Even with some missed chances, the Timbers overall took more and better shots. Sure, Real Salt Lake forced Timbers goalie Troy Perkins
into some unwanted (and genuinely impressive) heroics this game, but Portland did much the same to Nick Rimando of Real Salt Lake. The two teams each logged a punishing eight on-target shots, with two each from Alexander and Franck Songo’o
and three from Darlington Nagbe
3. Nagbe has come back from his injury with a vengeance. The story on Nagbe last year was always his limitless potential. This year the story is what he’s bringing to the field. In the past three games, Nagbe has found the net three times—one more than his total for the entire 2011 season. Spencer has moved him into the center, and the move seems to have paid off. Both Portland goals last game came off Nagbe’s foot, and both were assists from Alexander.
4. Alexander is consistently stepping up his game. This is the first time this year Alexander has played for a full 90 minutes, and though he fell off toward the end of the game, his performance was one of the match’s best—both offensively and defensively. Although his two assists and two screaming near-goals made his presence more felt than in previous games, Alexander has consistently been one of Portland’s brightest players in terms of position and quick passing decisions. His play has previously been derided as middling in some corners, but to no small degree this is because his greatest talents are of the unflashy sort that can often hold a midfield together. There is a reason that almost all of Real Salt Lake’s threatening runs from the backfield came up Portland’s right side this game, and that reason is Eric Alexander.
5. Kris Boyd
is doing a great deal of off-ball work for the team. Belying early perceptions (including my own) that Boyd might not provide utility unless he receives service, Boyd—despite a true lack of opportunities this game—did a tremendous amount of work finding lanes and opening out the Real Salt Lake defense, allowing other players offensive chances. The continual threat that he represents means chances not just for Boyd, but for Alexander and Songo’o and Perlaza and Nagbe.
Which is all to say that if the Portland team continues to play as they did during the first 85 or so minutes of this loss against Real Salt Lake, they can expect a much different result at the end of most of their matches.