Needing all three points against an inferior opponent, the Portland Timbers played a nearly flawless game in defeating New England Revolution 3-0. Diego Chará, Kenny Cooper and Darlington Nagbe got goals in an explosive performance, particularly in the first half. In many ways the match mirrored the Timbers’ 3-0 defeat of LA Galaxy in August though it could be easily argued that Portland was even better against New England. From pure possession to the types of passing on display, the Timbers dominated the game, only allowing a few chances for the Revolution at all. Nagbe was the catalyst, starting at forward in place of Jorge Perlaza, who was out of the team due to an illness.
Nagbe’s role as a forward was his first such chance in the first team this year. After playing only eighteen minutes over the previous three games, Nagbe started and played the entire game for Portland. That was a first, too. In fact both Nagbe and Khalif Alhassan played the full game, which gave the Timbers a level of attacking rarely seen this season. Not only did Alhassan assist, and wonderfully so, on Nagbe’s header but the two combined well all night. Because the two are usually subbed for each other, their interactivity is a rarity. It should seem obvious to the coaching staff that that ease of combination is a must in future games.
With Perlaza absent, the triangles created between Chará, Nagbe and Cooper were the key to a successful attack against a defense that had just shut out FC Dallas. Though Cooper usually is a drifter himself, he was able to play a bit more of a traditional center forward’s role, allowing Nagbe and Chará space beneath him. When Nagbe pushed forward, Cooper slotted deeper to help create wide chances for Sal Zizzo on the right or with Chará pushing forward up the middle. Though the set up was unconventional compared to the Timbers’ usual strategy, it worked perfectly in a mesmerizing first half. Linking play through diagonal runs, creative dribbling and cross-field passing gave Portland an athletic, aggressive look that was nearly unstoppable. Chará in particular was a integral part of the Timbers’ assault on the Revolution’s final third.
The early goal from Chará also gave outside backs Mike Chabala and Lovel Palmer license to push forward and make the attack a wider one. Palmer had, of course, already assisted on Chará’s opener, but in the middle of the first half the Timbers were able to really stretch the Revolution. Palmer had a shot go off the post and another sail just over the bar in a hilarious sequence late in the first half while Chabala received a cross-field pass from Palmer before assisting on Cooper’s goal. Not only were assists benefits of the forward movement of the wide backs, creativity into the middle of the park on the part of Alhassan and Zizzo gave Portland another dimension of attack. Rather than only playing wide, both outside midfielders were able to involve themselves with Nagbe and Chará, leaving the Revolution no choice but to track them. Later in the game, that threat of going inside left Alhassan enough room to maneuver on the wing to lift a cross for an assist on Nagbe’s goal.
Whether the use of Nagbe in such a forward position is a sign of changes to come or a one-time experiment remain to be seen. If Perlaza is healthy enough by Wednesday’s game against San Jose Earthquakes, he’ll surely start. But John Spencer can no longer argue that Nagbe should be used only as a midfielder. This is unlikely to result in changes to the starting XI but could be very helpful in shifting of personnel when substitutes are used. For instance, Spencer could remove a forward, move Nagbe up top and insert James Marcelin or another defensive minded player in situations where the Timbers need to kill off a game.
The underrated part of the performance against New England was the defense. While Milton Caraglio did have two particularly nice chances, Benny Feilhaber and Rajko Lekić were held mostly in check by the combination of Eric Brunner and Futty Danso, with help from deep-set Jack Jewsbury. Futty was back in the line-up as David Horst sat out due to a groin injury. Though he was tentative on headers, Futty did a pretty nice job on the night while Brunner was again fantastic. The third consecutive clean sheet for Troy Perkins and the Timbers defense has helped not only to pull Portland back into a playoff position but gave the Timbers chances to make their relatively infrequent goals count for more. Against New England that was not necessary, but the trend is an encouraging one nonetheless.
With ten points from their past four games, Portland has resurrected their season and in turn, their hopes for the playoffs. Goals and results are still necessary to make that a reality but again, the Timbers are trending in a very positive direction. Granted, three of those four games have been at home, where the Timbers only play twice more this season. The biggest tests for Portland lie ahead in away matches, particularly with two games in four days to close the regular season. Yet the destruction of the Revolution is a good sign that the Timbers are able to lift their style and production when the conditions warrant.