Timbers again blanked at home
Of all the head-scratching elements of the Portland Timbers' home struggles, the first 15 minutes of Wednesday's match against the New York Red Bulls has to rank among the most perplexing.
On their heels from the opening whistle, facing an opponent every bit as desperate as themselves, the Timbers were fortunate to be behind only one goal before the game was six minutes old.
Against a Timbers side that is struggling to create chances and is searching for its swagger, a third-minute goal from right back Kyle Duncan was plenty for the Red Bulls in their 2-0 win at Providence Park.
"Today we didn't start with the right energy, even though we knew that's what we needed to do," Portland coach Giovanni Savarese said. "We allowed them to be able to get into spaces, not covering and letting them getting too many second balls and (to) play balls in behind that we knew they were going to do. Unfortunately, we didn't match up to that energy and that intensity at the beginning."
Coming off a shutout loss on Sunday to D.C. United, the Timbers had every reason to come out flying. Instead, they spent another evening trying, and failing, to overcome an early deficit.
A stoppage-time penalty kick converted by Daniel Royer sealed Portland's fate as the Red Bulls put an end to a three-match losing streak.
Coupled with a scoreless draw Wednesday between FC Dallas and Seattle, Portland has fallen back below the MLS playoff line.
At 13-13-4 (43 points), the Timbers are one point back of FC Dallas and San Jose, teams tied for the final two spots in the Western Conference playoffs.
Portland does have four games remaining and FC Dallas only three, but there is little reason to believe the Timbers will take advantage.
The win pushed the Red Bulls up to sixth in the Eastern Conference, seven points clear of eighth place at 13-13-5 (44). New York rotated six players into its lineup from Sunday's loss at Seattle, playing an inexperienced group of forwards whose intensity seemed to surprise the Timbers at the start of the match.
It was the eighth of 10 consecutive home games, and the Timbers have lost four of their last six matches and matched a franchise-worst five home losses in a MLS season.
If not for an unlikely comeback win over Sporting Kansas City on Sept. 7, Portland would be in significant danger of missing the playoffs.
Even the knowledge that three of the four remaining matches are at home — including a 1 p.m. Sunday visit from Minnesota United — is not all that comforting.
The one piece of good news is that Sebastian Blanco came off the bench to play the final 20 minutes as he works back from a calf strain that kept him out the previous two games.
Blanco created one of Portland's few glorious chances in the 81st minute. He lofted a ball from his defensive half into the path of Jeremy Ebobisse behind the defense.
True to Portland's fortunes of late, Ebobisse's left-footed shot somehow slipped inches outside the right post, leaving the forward to grab his head in disbelief.
It was a moment that perfectly reflected the frustrated state of these Timbers.
Having been one in his playing days, Savarese understands that strikers experience phases of dumbfounding bad luck. The coach now must make sure doubt doesn't settle in among his players.
"There's no one player that hasn't gone through moments like this," Savarese said. "The only way to go through it is to stay calm, to keep on working and to make sure that these things don't get to you. Because if you start worrying too much in regards to missing opportunities and not able to score, then you lose the belief.
"That's what we need right now is to make sure we keep believing in ourselves."
The Timbers didn't waste any time on Wednesday digging themselves into another hole.
The Red Bulls pounced in the third minute. New York attacked the left side of the penalty area with a series of one-touch passes to force Portland into a scramble defending. Josh Sims sent an angled cross through the penalty area that found right back Duncan unmarked. Duncan, playing for the first time in 11 games, made a run past Portland winger Tomas Conechny (who made his first MLS home start) and Duncan smashed the ball past helpless goalkeeper Steve Clark for his first career goal.
Moments later, Clark, Jorge Villafana and finally Bill Tuiloma blocked shots when it appeared the Red Bulls would score a second goal. Tuiloma cleared Tom Barlow's point-blank shot off of the goal line.
New York had two more promising chances before Portland nearly drew even in the 19th minute.
A well-executed counterattack got the ball to Portland's Diego Chara behind the defense. But goalkeeper Luis Robles came off his line, and Chara's chip attempt clanged off the crossbar.
Robles, a former Portland Pilots goalkeeper, played a strong match. Two of his three saves came on headers right at him by Tuiloma and Ebobisse from corner kicks. He claimed three potentially threatening crosses, and did enough in a couple of scramble situations to see the Timbers, including a late chance for Brian Fernandez, miss the target.
The Red Bulls came to Portland from Seattle and Robles said he enjoyed having a couple of days to connect with friends from his University of Portland days and time as an intern at Nike.
Fernandez played the entire game after missing the previous match with a stomach illness. Center back Larrys Mabiala remained sidelined, and midfielder Cristian Paredes left the field on a stretcher after a nasty challenge from New York's Cristian Casseres Jr. (no foul was called) Casseres caught Paredes on the lower right leg.
Shaking his head at yet another injury, Savarese said only that he did not yet know the extent of it.
Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri, who was credited with creating seven scoring chances, said there are positives to build on despite being shut out again.
"I think we've played good games," Valeri said. "If you think about the games where we have lost points here at home, most of them we have played better than the rival. Sometimes the result doesn't reflect the way of the game."
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