The point taken away from Philadelphia Union on Saturday night was an important one for the Portland Timbers. Earning a second clean sheet away from home was also significant, though the lack of scoring against a team who’d allowed six goals in the previous six days was worrying. Still, the Timbers recorded their first scoreless draw of the season, making them the last team in the league to do so, and showed the mettle necessary to hang around the final wild card playoff positions. The long layoff that I so feared was not much of an issue after Portland survived a hectic first twenty minutes.
Portland’s strength against Philadelphia came in central defense, as David Horst and Eric Brunner, in particular, played quite well. Limiting the Union’s chances through the middle, Portland was able to force play wide and for the most part, avoid dangerous situations. Troy Perkins was up to the task on a long shot from Danny Mwanga and the Timbers were lucky to avoid a goal from Kyle Nakazawa late in the game. Apart from a really nice shot from Sébastien Le Toux in the first half, Portland was able to keep Philadelphia from asserting their powerful attacking trio of Le Toux, Mwanga and Freddy Adu. Roger Torres gave Portland problems, as most creative midfielders do, but the youngster was not able to corral his shots as he’d done so successfully in recent games.
In attack, the Timbers created several strong chances but were again let down by their inability to finish. This recurring problem has cost Portland points all season and it was true again at PPL Park. Kenny Cooper showed some life from outside the box, which was a nice change from his performances earlier in the season, but when it came to actually scoring, Cooper kept with his usual practice of just missing. A perfect opportunity late in the game came from Diego Chará on a counter-attack, but was pulled wide of the far post by Cooper’s heavy right foot. On the other side of the attacking line, Jorge Perlaza was rendered largely ineffective, partly due to Philadelphia’s defending and partly due to his continued inability to successfully navigate counter-attacking chances. Perlaza was removed just after the hour in favor of Bright Dike.
That substitution for the Timbers was one I found confusing. Though Perlaza was not in his best form, a pairing of Dike and Cooper does little to create opportunities for the Timbers. Indeed, Portland’s best chance late in the game came not from sustained build-up but from the aforementioned counter-attack. Dike was not able to work into the game, despite having a half-hour to perform, and slowed the Timbers’ attack as often as he augmented it. John Spencer‘s second substitution, inserting Rodney Wallace in place of Khalif Alhassan in the left midfield, was a much more logical move, particularly given Wallace’s success as a midfielder last weekend for Costa Rica. Alhassan struggled to contribute to the Timbers’ attack all night while simultaneously leaving Mike Chabala exposed by not tracking back. Wallace aided in defense when needed but also gave a different kind of option on the left. Though it did not lead to a goal, it was a nice change of pace from the usual substitution pattern for the wide midfield positions. Wallace seems to have the right skill set to play in the midfield, especially when additional defensive cover is needed.
I was also confused by the inclusion of Darlington Nagbe on the right wing in the final ten minutes of the game. Though fresher legs helped, it seemed Eric Alexander was s more suitable choice for a late replacement for Sal Zizzo. Alexander is better defensively but also has the confidence to impact a game in a short period of time. Nagbe seems to prefer working his way into a game to coming in for ten minutes. Nagbe did nothing particularly wrong but if his insertion was meant to create a late offensive spark, it was the wrong move. Why exactly Nagbe has lost his starting position on the left side of midfield continues to confound. Though Alhassan has played well at times, it seems Nagbe was removed for rest about a month ago and has not been able to work his way back past Alhassan. Trying to push Nagbe into the team on the right side makes little sense as he clearly plays more comfortably on the left, or even in the middle. Again, he did not cost the Timbers the game in his ten minutes on the right, but it just seems to run contrary to the idea of either resting him or helping him learn in a position where he belongs.
In midfield, Spencer used Jack Jewsbury and Chará as he has in recent weeks, with the former set deeper and the latter able to move forward when he pleased. Jewsbury’s presence deep in central midfield did help slow Torres and Adu while freeing Chará to get forward and combine with Cooper and Perlaza. If the Timbers are to continue using a 4-4-2 away from home, this is exactly the midfield style that will be necessary for draws. It is unclear whether that formation can lead to away victories, as it has not yet proven successful in that regard, but it is certainly a formation that keeps the Timbers from losing, which is just as important right now.
All of that said, Portland showed the kind of resiliency necessary to go to the end of the season fighting for a playoff spot. The Timbers dropped to twelfth on the table after DC United’s impressive win against Chivas USA, and United have two games in hand, as well. But the point earned did allow Portland to gain on Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew, two possible candidates for wild card positions. With six points at home to take from New England Revolution and San Jose Earthquakes over the next ten days, the Timbers are very much able to claim their status as a playoff contender. Just a month ago that was very difficult to envision, and taking four of the six possible points from Philadelphia this season gives Portland a rare tie-breaker. With games against the three clubs immediately above them on the table over the next month, the Timbers will have every opportunity to climb into the top ten by season’s end. Proving they could keep a team like Philadelphia from scoring while on the road could serve as a real lift for morale with such important away games left to play. But Portland will also have to learn to score when the chances are available. A scoreless draw was a good result at this point in the season. It will not be for much longer.