Any story worth its salt needs a strong opening, and even a poor attempt at telling a tale can be saved by a great ending.
Same goes for a footy match, and so far this season, the first and last chapters of the Timbers' gameplan are in desperate need of a re-write. Whether they're at home or on the road—from an early-goal opening act to last week's late-game meltdown—Portland has struggled to complete a full 90 minutes of consistent play.
Darlington Nagbe's pair of wondergoals should've been enough for
a win a tie last week, but after soiling the sheets defensively against RSL, Portland has entered nervous territory just four matches into their sophomore season. Team leaders are talking about the need to win "or keep sinking and sinking." The coaching staff is tamping down expectations. The press is imagining a five-match losing streak.
Oh, but it's still early, and this remains a club that came into 2012 improved at nearly every position. Injuries have certainly taken their toll, and after last week's loss, coach John Spencer said he didn't think confidence is the issue for his fellas. Still, it's hard to deny that anything less than a victory today against Chivas USA (7:30 p.m. on Fox 12, 970 AM) might require some serious spring soul-searching.
And maybe that's already happened. At a certain point, injuries or otherwise, the Timbers need to take a look at who's lined up across from them and compare quality. Today, it's the Goats, who've scored all of one goal this season and, by necessity, pride themselves on a stingy defense. Spencer has repeatedly pointed to confidence as the only thing keeping his budding star Nagbe from breaking out big-time, saying most recently, "it’s just a matter of him having the belief to go and show what he’s capable of doing."
The same might be said for the rest of this Timbers. But would they listen?
It's an overcast evening in Goose Hollow, and wherever you may be, click past the jump and join me as I deftly describe all the action, on and off the pitch.
Chivas USA—Dan Kennedy in goal. James Riley, Rauwshan McKenzie, Heath Pearce and Ante Jazic on defense. Cesar Romero, Oswaldo Minda, Nick LaBrocca, Blair Gavin and Ben Zemanski at midfield. Alejandro Moreno at forward.
Portland—Troy Perkins in goal. Lovel Palmer, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Eric Brunner and Rodney Wallace on defense. Franck Songo'o, Jack Jewsbury, Diego Chará and Eric Alexander at midfield. Darlington Nagbe and Kris Boyd up front.
Nimble Nagbe gets the start up front, after a virtuoso goal-of-the-week/MLS team-of-the-week performance—his best in a Portland jersey. Songo'o also makes his first regular-season start.
Hanyer Mosquera is out again while he recovers from a concussion suffered when he had his eye socket broken two weeks ago, meaning rookie Jean-Baptiste again gets the call.
New Portland conditioning coach John Ireland had the team running through a bit of a different pre-match routine, which included some rather awkward-looking leaping. I'm sure it's helpful.
A couple of interesting trends: The Timbers have yet to score first in (or in the first half of) any of their games this season, but The Goats are a combined 0-4-1 in Oregon over the past two years. It looks like the Timbers will be shooting toward their Army in the first half as we're just about ready to get underway.
And away we go ... No goals through 28 seconds. First test, passed.
2nd minute—We've spent most of the time in the Timbers' defensive end, as both teams feel each other out early.
3rd—Songo'o with a nice ball into the box for Boyd, who flicks it ahead to Alexander. Nothing doing, and Portland is showing some patience early.
5th—Nagbe's first touch is a bit strong, but it leads to an Alexander cross back into him in the box. Nothing comes of it, and we're seeing Portland playing forward a bit more, especially Jewsbury.
6th—Nagbe gets to Perkins' goal kick and blasts a shot from the top of the box, but it sails about 15 rows up into the Army.
8th—Nagbe gets away from two defenders with some fancy footwork and plays one into the box for Jewsbury, but it's behind Cap'n Jack.
10th—Riley sends in a long cross for Moreno, but Perkins wisely comes forward and picks it out of the air. Nice decision by Perkins, who's looking for his 50th career MLS win tonight.
12th—Wallace with a nice tackle on Moreno sends the ball to Boyd, who plays it back to Songo'o. He looks way ahead for Nagbe, but the pass is well long. A bit of a miscommunication there, perhaps, between a midfielder making his first start and a kid still getting used to playing up front.
13th—Alexander with a run and some good footwork on the west side. He finds Nagbe at the top of the box. Nagbe fires one, but it's right at Kennedy. Portland the aggressor thus far.
15th—Minda lofts one into the box for Zemanski, but Wallace chases him out. Chivas regroups and Zemanski takes it into the box himself and looks for Riley, but Portland clears.
16th—TIMBERS GOAL It's Boyd, who's in the right place at precisely the right time after Chivas makes a big mistake in front of their goal. Palmer takes a shot from 45 yards out, and Kennedy and Riley collide going up for it. While they're on the ground, the ball bounces directly to Boyd, who gathers it in, takes a moment and blasts it low and right to give Portland a 1-0 lead. Boyd is cool and collected, and the Timbers strike first for the first time all year.
19th—A couple of good chances for Chivas. Moreno crosses into the box, but Jean-Baptiste is there to knock it away. It goes straight back to Moreno, who fires it right at Brunner. Timbers clear.
21st—Alexander with a cross into the box for Boyd, who heads it just over the bar. Very, very close call for Chivas: That was a foot or two away from Boyd's second goal of the night. Another active offensive first half for Alexander, who shined last week in the first 45.
23rd—Nagbe tripped up at midfield to earn a Portland free kick. It leads to a switch and another Chivas foul on Jewsbury. Songo'o lining up the set-piece chance.
24th—Songo'o sends the free kick in toward a leaping Brunner, and McKenzie flat out pushes him to the ground. Ref is looking right at it, but doesn't call it. Wow. Maybe he was distracted by the Army? Brutal non-call.
26th—Now Chará is kicked to the ground and it's another Chivas USA foul. Dangerous play as Chará is taken down hard. Minda is shown the yellow, and it looks like the Goats are trying to establish a physical tone against the fast-starting version of the Timbers.
28th—Palmer attempts to get forward and Jazic with a great tackle in front of Timbers Army.
30th—Timbers showing good defensive pressure early, especially from Chará.
31st—Songo'o sends one in for Alexander, who gets his right leg on it and knocks it off Kennedy. Corner kick taken by Songo'o, but it's knocked out.
33rd—Nagbe triple-teamed and sends it back to Wallace, who sends it in for Songo'o. He hangs on a bit too long, and Chivas clears. On the counter, Romero nearly equalizes after Riley blows past Wallace and finds Romero, who sends it just outside the far post. Dangerous spot there, and the crowd exhales a bit.
35th—Songo'o crosses into a streaking Alexander, but he can't get to it. Timbers get it back and Boyd tries to play it again to Alexander, but it's a bit strong.
38th—Palmer plays a long one into Boyd, who heads it backward to Nagbe. Chivas defends, but Portland repeats the process, with Palmer launching from deep and Nagbe going up for the header.
40th—Wallace beats a pair of defenders and finds Jewsbury running down the east end. Cap'n Jack sends it into the box, but Pearce gets in front of it. Timbers gets it back and Songo'o cracks a shot from the top of the box, but it's well high and wide. Goal kick coming for the Goats, but Songo'o is showing he's certainly not afraid to shoot.
41st—Chivas with their first corner of the night, and Brunner sends it out for another.
42nd—Romero takes it, but Songo'o stands right in front of him and knocks it over the line for a third corner. That one comes in, and Portland immediately clears.
43rd—Songo'o is pushed down from behind just outside the box and it falls right to Nagbe in a dangerous spot. He shoots, but it's deflected high and over the line. Timbers corner comes in and Palmer gets a flick, but Moreno is there to knock it away.
45th—Jewsbury crosses one in for Boyd, but it's high and behind him. Not seeing the board from the fourth official, so it doesn't look like any extra time in the first half.
HALFTIME: Portland leads, 1-0. The Timbers strike first for the first time all season, and Boyd finishes off a Chivas mistake to give Portland a lead. A nice first half for the Timbers—perhaps their best first 45 of the season—and the Goats aren't exactly threatening the Timbers very much on offense. Portland with some good possession and doing well to both run the Goats ragged while driving the visitors to distraction. Simply put, the Timbers are by far the more dynamic, dangerous club, and it's shown in the first half. Portland out-shot Chivas USA 10-3 and won the shots-on-target margin 3-0. Portland dominated the possession 59.5% to 40.5%.
Timbers training coach Ireland has the team running drills just before the half gets underway. One change for Portland's lineup: Mike Chabala enters for Wallace, who looked like he might have tweaked an ankle.
And we're back at it ...
46th—Nagbe plays one ahead to Boyd, but he's offside and doesn't bother to chase it down.
48th—CHIVAS USA GOAL Second half-sub Ryan Smith makes his presence felt right away. He gets past Palmer and finds Moreno on a cross, and the captain heads it low and left past Perkins. We're tied at 1 and all that momentum from Portland's first half is nullified as the Goats score for just the second time all season.
50th—Chivas USA really attacking and the Timbers are playing back on their heels a bit. Chabala with a long run forward and crosses toward Alexander, but it's a tad long.
53rd—Long ball for Nagbe, who's tangled up by McKenzie. Timbers still a bit stunned by the Goats' early second-half goal, and not getting many chances. Chivas has picked it up by leaps and bounds early.
55th—Timbers starting to pick up possession a bit. Songo'o finds a bit of space and cracks one from 35 yards out, but it's high.
57th—Chará fouls Smith, and after a quick re-start, Jazic fires a dangerous curler from the west side. Perkins is there. On the counter, Jewsbury sends in a cross, but it's mis-hit and well high.
58th—Romero finds Moreno in the box, but Jean-Baptiste does well to knock it away. Might have touched his arm, as the Goats are claiming, but the ref doesn't see it. Corner comes in hot and is cleared out.
60th—Chabala with a great long ball to a streaking Songo'o, but Franck's called offside.
62nd—Songo'o is definitely laboring a bit, and Kalif Alhassan will enter the match. After missing a match due to a groin injury, Alhassan is on to give Portland a bit of a spark off the bench.
65th—Nagbe is really being surrounded—often triple-teamed—with every touch. Perhaps the opposition has heard of him?
66th—And, right on cue, Nagbe is fouled about 25 yards out. Alhassan lines up a free kick.
67th—Kalif's free kick is on-goal and it's an easy save for Kennedy. On the counter, Smith gets past Chabala and finds Moreno for a shot, but Jean-Baptiste is there to knock it away.
68th—Alhassan with a long ball to Boyd, but he would've been offside anyway had Kennedy not gotten to it first.
70th—Timbers with some good possession in Chivas' end. Palmer chases down a long ball from Alexander just before it crosses the goal line, and Lovel send it to Nagbe/Boyd in the box. But it's a bit high and the Goats clear.
72nd—Alexander with a cross into a turning Nagbe, but he's quadrupled teamed and the Goats again clear. On the counter, Smith with a cross that somehow gets all the way through the box. Moreno gets a shot off, which is high, and Perkins is livid at his defense. Chivas brings on Laurent Courtois for Cesar Romero.
74th—Alexander picks Smith's pocket and brings it up the middle. Alexander doesn't play it forward because Boyd looks offside and Boyd shows some frustration, pointing to the outside and screaming something at Alexander.
76th—And now Palmer is yelling at Alexander after he's forced to gamble and slide tackle to knock it away. Timbers bring in Perlaza for Alexander, and Palmer is down in the box favoring his wrist.
78th—Timbers playing with 10 and after a cross into the box, Moreno gets a shot off from point-blank range. Perkins is there, though, and the crowd exhales. Big chance for Chivas as things are getting sloppy and a bit testy.
79th—Palmer back on just in time, as Chivas lines up the corner. They play it back to Riley, who sends it to the Northwest corner. Jean-Baptiste clears and Portland is out of trouble for the moment.
81st—Alhassan plays a long ball forward, but it's too long and easy pickings for Kennedy.
82nd—CHIVAS USA GOAL Oh boy. Ryan Smith again with a cross to find a teammate for a free header. It's LaBrocca, who easily puts it past Chabala and Perkins to give the Goats a 2-1 lead. Perkins is, once again, livid, and the body language from Portland as they get ready to restart is not so good.
84th—Alhassan is leveled right in front of the Chivas USA bench, and it'll be a free kick for Portland.
85th—Alhassan sends it in and it's right at Kennedy. Not a very good service at all.
86th—Goal kick played ahead to Perlaza, who gets a shot off just inside the box, but it's high. Wouldn't matter if he netted it, however, as Perlaza is called for a push-off before he takes the shot.
87th—Jewsbury tries to find Perlaza up the right side, but it's a tad behind him and Jazic is there to knock it away.
88th—Palmer spins to get a bit of space and crosses to Boyd. He gets a head on it, but it doesn't have enough power to scare Kennedy. The keeper's under it and time is ticking away on Portland's chances here.
89th—Riley gets a yellow card for wasting time. Can't blame him.
90th—We'll have three minutes of stoppage time. Desperation mode, engage.
STOPPAGE: Chará with a giveaway and Courtois takes a shot. It's deflected and it'll be a corner for the Goats. ... Chará taken down hard along the west sideline as he collides with Smith. Smith gets the yellow card and Scott Gordon comes on after they drag Smith off the pitch. Perkins coming out of the box and forward for a free kick. It's in for Boyd, but Chivas knocks it out. Chabala plays a long ball for Brunner, but Kennedy rises up to grab it.
FULL TIME: Chivas USA 2, Timbers 1. This crowd is stunned for the second straight week. It's eerily quiet here as the Goats score twice in the second half and really dominate the final 45 to get a big win and stay undefeated on the road this season. Timbers are once again standing at midfield looking like they're not sure what just happened.
Some final stats: Chivas USA made up plenty of ground in the final 45, and ended up out-shooting Portland 14-12. The Timbers managed just two shots in the entire second half, and just one in the final 35 minutes. The Goats also won 53.6% of the duels and made up a bit of the possession, though Portland still won that stat with 56.3%.
Back from the locker room, and if they were morose after last week, the Timbers were downright angry with tonight's result. And for good reason: The Goats out-played Portland in the second half, stunning them with a 48th minute goal and ripping away a victory with another in the 82nd.
"We need to dig deep," said Boyd, looking just as distraught as he appeared a week ago. "We need to be men and stand up. "
Spencer echoed those comments, saying his team played as poor as they've played at home since he's been here. And for the first time in two years, Spencer said his side "looked like an expansion team." Ouch. That comment certainly didn't sit well with Cap'n Jack, who acknowledged disappointment was once again an unwelcome guest in the locker room.
"The frustration's building with everybody, and it's obviously the first thing on everyone's mind right now, it's so fresh," Jewsbury said. "It definitely hurts right now."
That frustration showed at times, both on the field and in the dressing room. As media gathered, Perkins walked in stone-faced, got the attention of the few players who'd made it to their lockers and said firmly, "Don't be going anywhere, stay here." After that, behind the door that leads to the team showers and medical treatment area, there were a number of audible shouts and yells that sounded teammate-to-teammate. Not good.
Afterward, I asked Jewsbury what he, as the captain, must to do to keep this team together.
"You just can't have guys splintering off into different groups," he said. "I think we're still a confident group. Guys believe in one another, and we have to make sure that stays the same. It's a long season. We're only five games into it and we've gotta realize, it's only gonna change if guys in this locker room come together."
Here's Spencer's post-game presser, in which he does little to comfort his team.