Perhaps the holiday was only in Portland, but twenty thousand celebrated in style at Jeld-Wen Field as the Timbers defeated Philadelphia Union 3-1 to open the 2012 season. Winning the first game of the season and getting goals from Kris Boyd and Kalif Alhassan (not to mention Andrew Jean-Baptiste) is almost more than a Timbers fan could have imagined, even just two weeks ago. In the face of severe shortages in central defense and wide midfielders (to the degree that Ryan Kawulok and Freddie Braun were in the eighteen), Portland outlasted Philadelphia’s strengths and countered with an explosiveness and determination rarely seen in the club’s debut MLS season.
From the outset, the Timbers’ two main conduits for offensive expression came with service to Boyd and wing play from Alhassan. For the first twenty or so minutes, Portland tried funneling most possession through the new boy at the top for the formation, mostly in the form of long balls. As good as he was with his head in controlling possession and generating attacking against AIK in the final pre-season game, Boyd struggled to find the same consistency against Carlos Valdés. Though he met Zac MacMath with a decent chance at the edge of the box in the twentieth minute, Boyd was largely ineffective in the first half. Meanwhile, Alhassan began his tormenting of the Union’s new left back, Porfirio López. Through an unending series of step-overs, quick moves and short crosses, Alhassan kept López guessing throughout.
Ultimately the first half was a fairly tedious exercise in professional football. Neither side did much after the first twenty minutes as play ground to a halt in the midfield. That did not mean there were no performances worthy of note, however, as Jack Jewsbury put in an excellent shift for the Timbers. Rather than trying to be an offensive catalyst, as he was at the start of 2011, or a limited-role defensive midfielder as he was over the second half of last season, Jewsbury has settled comfortably, if intensely in between. While he does still provide extremely useful service on set pieces, and his adaptability in taking quick free kicks should now be infamous among opposing managers, the captain’s role appears to have shifted to emotional leader and all around badass. Perhaps jealous of Diego Chará‘s status as the league’s leader in fouls last season, Jewsbury has adopted a fiery attitude to complement his mostly steady play. He drifts forward to help press opponents, drops into defense to help cover for a roaming Lovel Palmer and seems to consider aerial challenges from his opposing number a personal affront. His foul count is sure to increase in 2012, but so too is his ability to physically dictate the flow of game.
Jewsbury’s persistence in annoying, fouling and even marking Freddy Adu led to frustration on the young midfielder’s part and mostly took him out of the game as a creative option. That reduction in flexibility and vision limited the Union’s ability to take the ball from decent midfield positions into shot-taking, defense frightening attacking movements. As such, Philadelphia managed just two shots on target (one of which was Gabriel Gómez’s free kick from nearly forty yards – complements of a Jewsbury foul on Adu) and a single corner kick.
Yet Jewsbury was not the only reason for Philadelphia’s lack of offensive might. Paired with Eric Brunner, who played a fine game in defense himself, Jean-Baptiste, the 19-year old rookie in his MLS debut, did a more than adequate job against the infinitely more experienced Lionard Pajoy. The Union’s new striker was playing professionally in Colombia when Jean-Baptiste was twelve years old, yet the youngest player on the pitch ended the day with his own logslice and a definitive victory against Pajoy. Despite deflecting Gómez’s free kick into the Portland net for the Union’s only goal, Jean-Baptiste impressed with his positioning, his aerial ability and most importantly, his distribution. Though it will never appear on a score sheet, Jean-Baptiste’s outlet pass to Eric Alexander in the 66th minute started the sequence that ended with Boyd’s headed goal and Portland’s then 2-1 lead. Where he was beaten on a number of occasions in the pre-season, the youngster held his ground against Pajoy (and others) and required very little by way of bailouts from Rodney Wallace, the wide defender on his side of the field. Jean-Baptiste is unlikely to start many more games for Portland this season, as injuries to Futty Danso and David Horst eventually subside, and new signing Hanyer Mosquera finally receives his international transfer certificate, but his debut in green and gold is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon.
In the second half, Boyd finally broke free from Valdés’ grip and generated movement that ultimately led to the Timbers’ victory. When Alhassan corralled Alexander’s long ball in the 66th minute, Boyd heistated, giving the winger time to orchestrate a quick movement to free space against the exhausted López. Having beaten the Costa Rican defender in every direction all evening, Alhassan was given the space necessary to provide a simple ball toward the near post. Boyd sprung, as only a natural-born goal scorer can anticipate, slipping away from Valdés and crashing past a wholly unprepared Danny Califf. He needed only to redirect Alhassan’s perfectly placed cross, sending the ball angling back toward the far post, leaving MacMath stranded and no less of a spectator than the looming Timbers Army behind him. That goal sealed the Timbers’ victory and confirmed the exact purpose of Boyd’s arrival in Portland. Perhaps even more encouraging than the stunningly simple and effective sequence was that it was the second provider in as many games (granting that the first was in pre-season against AIK – Jorge Perlaza) for Boyd. With Darlington Nagbe playing only a bit role in the opening victory and Franck Songo’o still nursing an injured MCL, the possibility of a steady stream of service from imaginative midfielders is enticing.
Alhassan’s goal in the 76th minute was more than enough to finish off Philadelphia as the entire Union defense emerged from their slumber just in time to see the 21-year old chipping MacMath and celebrating his first MLS goal in front of his adoring fans. The match was no great advertisement for the start of the so-called MacMath era in Philadelphia, nor was it a game the captain, Califf, will want to remember. John Spencer called it a, “tremendous response” to the Union’s breakthrough goal. In reality it was a explosion of energy, precision and fulfillment of expectation that just took fifty-four minutes to finally emerge. When it did, there was no stopping the Timbers’ onslaught. When taken as a whole, the Timbers did not dominate the match. Yet for the half-hour from half-time until the seventy-sixth minute, Portland was the greater side in almost every aspect. Some will call the wild swing of momentum and emotion impossible to replicate in any of the seventeen away matches – and that may well be true. Yet there is always the possibility of such an eruption at Jeld-Wen Field, which for now, makes Portland a very dangerous team.