Potent defense nets first win for Timbers
There is no column in the standings for style points.
So, while Sunday's performance from the Portland Timbers in a 1-0 win was tough to watch, it was a thing of beauty to goalkeeper Steve Clark, the back line and coach Giovanni Savarese.
But on the heels of last season's perplexing play at Providence Park, many more performances like this and a virus, cold weather and late Sunday kickoffs won't explain the vacant seats.
I don't blame Savarese for his conservative approach. He is paid to entertain, sure. But first and foremost his job is to win games. Having dropped the home opener, Savarese understood the significance of the match against expansion Nashville SC. He knew his team had to avoid the poor decisions that were so costly in the 3-1 season-opening loss to Minnesota United the week before at Providence Park.
Add in the midweek injury to right back Jorge Moreira, and it's easy to understand why assignments one, two and three against Nashville were to stay connected on defense.
The Timbers did that to almost painful effect. And the one-score win was vital heading into consecutive road games at New England and Los Angeles FC.
"The guys battled to make sure that we achieved that (win)," Savarese said. "They were disciplined to make sure that we didn't get scored against us. There was a lot of work that went into that. A lot of unity, and defensively we gave everything that we needed to make sure that we didn't allow any goals. Offensively, in the first half we created some opportunities. The second half was a little more difficult."
Given that his team didn't even attempt a shot at goal in the final 65 minutes, "difficult" is a diplomatic way to describe the second half for the Timbers. They defended with discipline and determination. But they did almost nothing to ease the pressure of defending a one-goal lead.
Portland struggled to string together more than a couple of passes and, until Jeremy Ebobisse entered in the 64th minute, had no real outlet up the field who could hold possession long enough for the Timbers to move forward.
Bright spots? Chris Duvall was a solid, physical presence at right back who is much more comfortable defending than is Moreira. Jorge Villafana, after a tough first game at left back, was positionally solid for the most part and had a few important shot blocks. Dario Zuparic has put in two strong performances at center back.
The competitive toughness of Portland's back four and goalkeeper should be appreciated. And Diego Valeri's 12th-minute goal was exquisite. But the Timbers did not make the day easy for themselves
"We were sitting a little bit deep and allowing them to come, which made it a little bit harder for us to build so deep in our (end of the) field," Duvall said.
"That's just kind of the way MLS is. There's no promotion/relegation. Everyone feels like they can win every game, so even on the road they're going to throw the kitchen sink at us and hope that they can get a late equalizer," Duvall added. "Sometimes you just have to grind out a result and stay together, and we were able to do that."
To do it, they needed that one marvelous strike from Valeri and one terrific reaction save from Clark. Valeri's spinning half-volley in the 12th minute was one of only three attempts at goal all day from the Timbers.
Clark's competitive drive and his ability to come through when tested was vital. In the 69th minute, Clark reacted quickly to get down and with his fingertips push a shot from Anibal Godoy around the goalpost. It was the one truly challenging moment among the four saves for Clark.
"As a goalkeeper, if you're going to make one big save, it means your team's playing great. It's the least I can do with all the work that they did," Clark said. "I enjoyed that save. I'm going to watch that video a bunch."
My guess is the video sessions for Timbers midfielders this week have been less enjoyable. Whether it was a lack of chemistry among midfielders Diego Chara and Andy Polo and the wingers, or it was a lack of confidence once Nashville started flooding the primary passing lanes, the Timbers looked uncertain with the ball at their feet for long stretches of the second half, when they should have been primed for counterattack opportunities.
So far, the only thing between the Timbers and a 0-2 start is 65 minutes of brave defending.
"I think, at least for a defender, those 1-0 results feel the best," Duvall said. "Sometimes you bend and you don't break, and to get a (shutout) victory at home, especially in my first start with the team, it felt really good."
• Training camp began Monday for the Portland Thorns, who will kick off the National Women's Soccer League season on April 18.
After agreeing to a contract extension last week, coach Mark Parsons will start his fifth season in Portland by getting to know the draft picks and players invited to try out while awaiting next week's arrival of most of the club's established players. They are busy with national team assignments or wrapping up play overseas.
• Rough start for Timbers 2: Giving up three goals in the first half-hour, Portland's understudies dropped their United Soccer League Championship opener 6-1 at Phoenix. Tomas Conechny had the goal for T2, which visits El Paso on Saturday before playing their first home match at 5 p.m. Sunday, March 22, against Colorado Springs at Hillsboro Stadium.
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