Twenty-four hours later, disbelief remains as the Portland Timbers’ most inexplicable loss on the MLS stage lingers. How could the Timbers lose to what, on paper, looked to be a clearly inferior New England team? While giving up early goals is not unknown to Portland’s defense, how could they give up the eighth-quickest goal in MLS history? Between Kris Boyd, Diego Chará, Darlington Nagbe and eventually Franck Songo’o, how could Portland’s top attacking players not beat 36-year old Matt Reis? These are among the multitude of questions facing John Spencer and the Timbers as they return to Portland this weekend.
In many ways, the story of the match can be told within the first thirty seconds of play as Saër Sène headed in a fine Chris Tierney cross for the only goal of day. Tierney found no challenge on the left wing as Kalif Alhassan casually ambled along nearby while Sène simply ran past the marking of Jack Jewsbury, ultimately beating Eric Brunner to Tierney’s cross. With Hányer Mosquera moving toward the touchline to help cover Kelyn Rowe, who was making a near post run, Sène slipped in between the Timbers’ two central defenders. Jewsbury’s lack of awareness as Sène galloped past and into the box encapsulates what happened to the Timbers in Foxborough.
To end the analysis there would, of course, miss an opportunity to highlight what Portland did well. Four times, Boyd found space enough in the box to head the ball toward goal. That the Timbers’ front man was consistently in position is an immense positive to remember going forward. That he was unable to direct a single one of his quartet on frame is a disappointment but certainly part of a goal poacher’s life. Not only was Boyd in position but his service was quite good. Expecting more than four or so very good chances in the box would be overly optimistic, even for a striker of Boyd’s quality, so the onus is on Boyd to finnish off those chances. He spread his opportunities across the match, heading off target in the 25th, 32nd, 62nd and 77th minutes. Obviously scoring on one or more of those chances would have been preferable, but moving forward, if service and positioning continue, the Timbers will score goals.
Also encouraging was the MLS debut of Songo’o, a substitute replacing Eric Alexander on the hour. I was very surprised to see the Cameroonian winger aligned on the left wing, rather than having Alhassan switch to the left, yet the formula worked to the degree that it helped create chances and made the Timbers dangerous from the left for the first time in the match. Only Alexander’s lay-off for Chará was a better chance from the left than what Songo’o helped conjure in his half-hour at Gillette Stadium. The highlight sequence from Songo’o was his cannon of a shot at Reis in the 85th minute, though his 69th minute strike was an early sign that he intended to make a mark on the match. Though both of Songo’o’s shots hit the target, almost directly in the form of Reis, what was missing was the creative crossing he brought earlier in the pre-season (which it should be noted, came exclusively from the right) before his injury. Perhaps, given the situation, shots on target were the more important aim for the substitute. Look for Songo’o to earn more time and create more chances for others than he did against the Revolution.
Despite the positives in several specific instances, on the whole the Timbers were the lesser side against a severely understrength New England contingent. With several players out of position and many more rendered unavailable due to injury or suspension, the Revolution were at their weakest point. Though they have now won each of their past six home openers, that particular Revolution side was not one that would compete for many points in MLS. In fairness, with two away losses behind them and the next two fixtures away to LA Galaxy and FC Dallas, New England had to win the game to have much of a chance of taking any points at all from their first five games. Yet Portland put out what amounted to its strongest possible side and could not score even one goal. Regardless of the circumstances, any MLS side can be expected to allow a goal on the road. The Timbers’ real failure was in their inability to adequately respond in a way that would keep writers like me from having to point toward missed headers as positives.
Most disturbing for the Timbers early in this season is how similar it is to the frustrations of early 2011. Last season, Portland allowed the first goal in each of its first three games. Four of the six goals allowed in the first three 2011 games came before the half-hour. Two of the three goals allowed so far in 2012 have come in the same time period with all three coming as the first in each game. The fact is that the Timbers are routinely unprepared for the start of matches, particularly on the road. The next two matches are at home, against Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA respectively, so Portland will have ample opportunities to rebound and earn crucial intra-conference points before the next away game. Yet the inability to open a game with concentration haunts the team. Spencer cannot avoid the subject, even when away from the local media, saying, “I’m just very disappointed. I think this is one of those performances that keep the media talking about why we can’t play away from home. This is one of those performances, a very poor performance.”
Three of Portland’s next four games come against Real Salt Lake (home), LA Galaxy (away) and Sporting Kansas City (home). It would not be unreasonable to refer to those three clubs as three of the four best sides in MLS. The Timbers will be grateful to have two of the three at home, given the lack of goal scoring over the past two weeks, yet the challenge remains clear. Play in a way that in any way resembles the performance against New England and Portland could be facing a disastrous start to 2012. Figure out a way to score goals when opportunities arise and the Timbers could be among the clubs with the best starts to the season. Predictions are moot at this point as only changes on the pitch will change the tune of the coverage of the club.
Note – Andrew Jean-Baptiste did a nice job in replacing Mosquera when the latter was removed with a broken nose in the 24th minute. The former’s availability for Portland’s season-opening Reserve League game in San Jose on Tuesday March 27 is a bit of a question if Mosquera will not be available for Saturday’s Real Salt Lake Match. With Futty Danso and David Horst still absent, Portland might have to use a guest player or get creative with defensive options in order to even have two available center backs for the Reserve League.