The Seattle Sounders first visit to Portland stadium in the Timbers inaugural MLS season was one for the memory banks.
Kicking off at 1 p.m. PST in front on a nationwide audience on ESPN, the stadium was filled to the brim. The North End, which houses the Timber's Army, was in its best form all season. As fireworks were being shot off during the national anthem, three massive banners filled up the entire north end stands.
One, a giant picture of the King of Clubs card, was a brilliant piece of symbolism by the Timber's Army. Another unfurled to state, "Quality, not Quantity," a sly dig at Seattle fans who continually proclaim that their stadium fills up at around 36,000 while the Portland stadium tops out at just over 18,000.
That said, the feeling in section was one of trepidation. To be honest, not too many people expected the Timbers to come away with a win. Yes, they were there to support their club, but the team has been so out of form, and the Sounders have been playing extremely strong, that not too many supporters expected a positive outcome.
The first surprise came when the line-up was announced, and coach John Spencer went with a 4-5-1, with Kenny Cooper sitting out. The official lineup stated Kalif Alhassan was playing up alongside Jorge Perlaza, but that's not what I saw. What I witnessed was a traditional 4-5-1, with James Marcelin playing in the middle. No doubt this alignment was to clog the middle and prevent a lot of those sneaky Seattle runs.
The first half played to a 0-0 draw with both clubs having some nice chances. Kalif Alhassan got behind the Seattle defense and had a one-on-one with Kasey Keller, the Seattle goalkeeper, only to lose the ball. Seattle had a great breakaway, but were undone by a wonderful save by Troy Perkins, the Portland keeper.
The second half started with fireworks and didn't stop.
Alhassan again got behind the Seattle defense and centered a ball for Diego Chara. The ball was near post and either bounced off a Seattle defender's legs or off of Chara. Either way, it went to the back of the net.
Just a few moments later the Timbers should have made it two to nil, when Perlaza absolutely blew a wide open shot right in front of the Seattle goal. It was a brilliant cross from Alhassan or Darlington Nagbe, can't remember which, and there was no reason for Perlazza to miss an opportunity like that.
It would cost Portland.
At the 56-minute mark, Fredy Montero was clumsily fouled by James Marcelin. Montero lined up for a free kick about 25 yards out right in front of the Portland goal. A wall was set up near post, and Perkins positioned himself to the far post.
Montero buried it in the near post corner, just past the outstretched hands of a diving Perkins.
Absolutely no excused for giving up that goal, as it wasn't struck with much pace.
Simply put, Perkins was out of position and playing way, way too much to the far post, relying on his wall to protect the near post.
Portland would answer just 14 minutes later when Perlaza found himself on yet another breakaway and behind the Seattle defense. Rather than blowing it, as he has in the last few games, he blasted a shot that ricocheted off the Seattle defender and into the net.
Portland was up 2-1 with just 20 minutes to play.
I didn't get my hopes up.
My feeling, and the feeling of many Portland supporters, was that this team would figure out a way to lose it.
And I wasn't disappointed.
At the 74-minute mark, Montero was left completely unmarked just six yards in front of the Portland goal for an easy put-in.
Hmmm...you think maybe you want to keep a tab on Seattle's best player and star forward?
Then, just six minutes later, the Portland defense didn't let anyone down.
This time is was Eric Brunner who committed to the boneheaded play to supply the loss.
He allowed Roger Levesque, the Seattle forward, to get behind him on a break-away. Then, he brought his cleats up and kicked him in the face in the penalty area. On replay, it's debatable if Brunner caught Levesque or had the ball first.
Either way, I just don't think you want to be bringing your cleats up that high in your own penalty area with just 10 minutes to go.
A penalty kick was called, and Brunner was handed a red card and sent off.
Seattle buried the penalty kick and won the game 3-2.
I'm calling a few things right here and now.
First, I'm not sure any of the Portland defenders are MLS quality. Certainly Steve Purdy and Rodney Wallace are not. They were continually burned by Seattle runs. Purdy, in particular, was just awful and responsible for the second Seattle goal.
I used to be admirers of Mamadou Danso and Brunner, but not any more. Danso was very lazy on a couple of crossings that could have been goals for Seattle. Brunner, for the second time (the first was against D.C. United), allowed a defender to get behind him in the waning moments. His foul at the end was just stupid.
This defense is awful, there's just no other way to say it.
Continually, they make little errors and mental mistakes. How many times have they given up a goal in the waning moments to lose or tie a game.
Against Colorado it was a set piece at the end of the game to lose.
Against New York it was Wallace's hand ball to give up the tying goal in the last 10 seconds.
Last week, against Kansas City, they gave up two goals in the first 20 minutes to bury the Timbers at home.
Rumor has it that these defensive lapses are causing discord within the locker room. That doesn't surprise me.
When an offense scores two goals at home and takes a 2-1 lead with 20 minutes in the game, that should be good enough to win or at least to tie.
So, let's discuss the positives and other issues.
I really liked the changes Spencer implemented. Finally, some Portland midfielders and forwards were running at the defense. Alhassan and Perlaza especially made outstanding runs and continually harassed the Seattle defense all day.
Marcelin was a nice addition. He's tall but has a steady head under pressure. His foul on Montero non withstanding, he played a nice game.
Chara finally played a good game. He hustled, made nice runs into space and won balls.
There are a lot of quick, technical players on this team (Alhassan, Chara, Nagbe, Perlaza) who can annoy the heck out of a defense.
Kenny Cooper might be on his way out of Portland. He's just not the player he was at the beginning of the season, and I'm not sure he fits in with this offense. He is clumsy with his feet and doesn't have great dribbling skills. When he scores, it's because of his work rate and finding open space.
He just looks lost and has absolutely no confidence.
Last week, against Kansas City, he came in around the 60th minute and immediately had an open header right in front of the Kansas City goal. Rather than burying it in a corner, he meekly headed the ball to the Kansas City keeper.
I've been an advocate of Cooper all season, but I've become a doubter.
What can I say about Perkins? He's a very good keeper who comes up with two or three world-class saves every game. I do wish he would get rid of the ball much quicker rather than holding onto it, allowing the defense to get set.
The real question is, what to do from here? With 13 games left, the season is far from over. But this team hasn't won a game in seven games and has lost six of their last seven.
How to get them motivated and involved?
Don't be surprised if they bring in some new defenders and, possibly, a new forward during the transfer window. Bright Dike might be a jolt of energy on offense, undoubtedly he'll get some time.
They need a vocal leader on defense to keep them focused and organized.
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