Exhibitions are typically a chance for starters to enjoy a bit of what the fans experience—namely watching the action from the sidelines.
But as the Timbers (at long last) begin to gain a smidge of momentum in their second Major League Soccer campaign, Portland hopes to keep those fuzzy feelings fresh. To that end, coach John Spencer said he'd roll out first-team players tonight for a 7:30 p.m. friendly against top-flight Spanish side Valencia CF.
"We’re paying a lot of money to bring them in, and the fans are paying a lot of money to come watch the game," said Spencer. "For us, we’re going to approach the game like any other game. We’re going to go and try to win it.”
And after a 2-1 victory over Chicago on Sunday, the once-elusive taste of victory is no longer so foreign for Portland. With eight points in their last five matches, PTFC no longer inhabits the bottom of the Western Conference, and offensive cohesion is beginning to form with the return of winger Sal Zizzo and the growing comfort of striker Kris Boyd. Rock-bottom but a memory, the Timbers will take another step toward avoiding a double-dip tonight against one of the top clubs in Spanish fútbol history. Founded in 1919, Valencia has won six La Liga titles—most recently in 2004. Los Che finished third last season (behind, ahem, Real Madrid and Barcelona) and reached the semifinals of the Copa del Rey and UEFA Europa League. Powered by a raucous home crowd at historic Estadio Mestalla, the team also known as Els taronja (Sidebar: the Timbers need more awesome nicknames!) likely won't be phased by Timbers Army's antics.
Of course, in the end, this game means next to nothing. Portland returns to MLS play on Saturday against Cascadia Cup rival Vancouver, and although this will be a great chance to see the return of injured defender David Horst and loaned forward Bright Dike, the biggest key to this match will be to prevent any twinge of negativity from creeping back into the locker room.
UPDATE: Valencia tops Portland 1-0, despite Spencer following through on his decision to play a number of regular starters. (Why? It's the economy, stupid!) Click past the jump for a full live-blog, plus final thoughts and video of coach Spencer's full post-match press conference.
PREGAME: Timbers have seemingly everyone on the roster out there during pre-game warmups, with the exception of Boyd and Diego Chará, who are not active tonight.
Not a capacity crowd by any means—neither in the stands nor the press box—but it's a lovely night for footy. Both the Spanish and U.S. national anthems were sung, and the Spanish flag hangs beside the American banner in the Southeast end of the stadium.
Valencia might be pretty good. Why, you ask? Because they have four guys on their roster who go by a single name. Miguel, Pablo, Portu and Jonas. No last names needed. I'm no soccer expert (I sometimes play one on the Internets), but to me, it's advantage: Los Che.
Valencia—Diego Alves in goal. Miguel, Angel Dealbert, Victor Ruiz and Antonio Barragan on defense. David Abelda, Daniel Parejo, Pablo and Carles Gil at midfield. Pablo Piatti and Artiz Aduriz up front. Abelda is the captain and Valencia is sporting black shorts with white blouses.
Portland—Troy Perkins in goal. Mike Chabala, Eric Brunner, David Horst and Steven Smith on defense. Franck Songo'o, Darlington Nagbe and Lovel Palmer at midfield. Sal Zizzo, Jorge Perlaza and Kalif Alhassan at forward. No captain indicated as Portland sports green tops and white shorts and lines up in a 4-3-3. A different tactical look, especially with Zizzo and Alhassan up front.
And away we go ...
1st minute—Valencia sends its first shot into the area, but it's no problem for Perkins. Pretty easygoing pace to start, which isn't surprising for an exhibition.
3rd—Ball played ahead for Piatti, who gets behind Brunner. Perkins gets there first, however, and it'll be a goal kick. Timbers possess it through the midfield and try a through-ball for Perlaza, but Alves is there.
4th—A very quick Piatti goes down twice just outside the box, but the ref isn't buying it. Goal kick Portland.
5th—Songo'o plays a long ball to Zizzo on the wing, and Dealbert misplays it over his own goal line. It'll be the first corner of the night for Portland. Zizzo sends it in from the southwest corner and Brunner has a look, but Valencia clears.
6th—Timbers press and earn two straight throws in VCF's end. The second comes in and it's headed poorly by a Valencia defender, giving Alhassan control inside the box. His shot is solidly struck, but it's right at Alves. First legit scoring chance of the night, and the Timbers are showing some aggression on offense early on.
8th—Chabala with a cross that's nabbed by Alves. Valencia attempts a counter, but Portland takes it away. Some solid, sustained possession early for the home team.
11th—Zizzo with a steal at midfield and takes it down the west side. He'll earn another throw in Valencia's end, which results in two more Timbers throws. Zizzo is fouled and it'll be a free kick in a dangerous spot for Portland.
12th—Zizzo sends it in and Horst gets a swing on it, but it's well high.
13th—Gil leans back and fires from the top of the box, but it's deflected by Horst. Smith tracks it down and it'll be a goal kick for Perkins.
15th—Good ball played forward for Piatti, but Horst is there to block the cross. It's played forward and Perlaza is fouled near midfield. Timbers take a free kick, but nothing doing.
16th—Abelda cracks one from the top of the box, but it's well over Perkins' head.
18th—Timbers get away with a couple of giveaways on the defensive end, but Valencia's attempt to cross is equally as off the mark.
19th—Piatti gets Valencia's best chance of the night after finding himself 1-on-1 vs. Horst and dancing around him. Piatti fires a low, skidding shot, but it's wide right.
21st—Nagbe with a nice run down the east end and knocks it ahead to Alhassan. Timbers nearly give it away, but they get it back and Songo'o cracks a shot that's deflected. Timbers earn a corner, and Zizzo sends it into the box for Songo'o, who heads it just over the crossbar.
23rd—Nagbe again makes his way up the middle and fires, but it's into the south end stands.
25th—After a Nagbe foul at midfield set up by a Songo'o run, Timbers play it back and get into a defensive posture. Pace slowing down midway through the first half.
26th—Piatti attempts a cross, but Perkins comes off his line to nab it.
29th—Alhassan springs Songo'o on a counter, who sprints all the way down the east side and fights off a defender to find Perlaza in the box. He can't one-time it, but Perlaza makes a turn and fires one that misses low and right. On the counter, Pablo sends one in front and past Perkins, but it trickles just wide. Good chance for Portland, followed by a nice chance for Valencia. Action is picking up.
31st—Piatti beats Horst, who is forced to take the forward down just outside the box. It'll be a yellow card for Horst and a free kick from straight on, just outside the arch for Valencia.
32nd—Free kick is over the wall, but it's also over the goal as the Timbers dodge one.
33nd—Valencia with its first free kick, played in from the Northwest corner, but Perkins is there to leap and grab it.
36th—Perlaza attempts a through-ball for Zizzo, but it's too strong. On the other end, Ruiz plays a long ball to Aduriz, but his leaping extended-leg try is wide right.
38th—Perkins with a dangerous touch in front of his own goal, and Aduriz is right there. Forced to dance, Perkins shows he's good with his feet—if he wasn't, that would've been an embarrassing goal to give up.
39th—Wasted chance for Portland as the Timbers possess in Valencia's end. Alhassan with a lazy pass into the box, however, and the Spaniards clear. On the other end, VCF earns another corner.
41st—VALENCIA GOAL It's Aduriz, who gets waaaaay too much space in front and makes the Timbers pay. He streaks across the middle and fires one low and right, and Perkins has no chance. It's 1-0 Valencia and Portland has again shown it has issues closing out the final minutes of a half.
44th—Valencia nearly gets another. Pablo cuts one back right on the goal line and plays it in front for Gil. He takes a shot that's deflected by Smith, and it'll be a corner for Valencia.
45th—Songo'o with a run and finds Perlaza running down the East end. He makes his way into the box and shoots from a tough angle, but it's just inside the far post.
HALFTIME—Valencia leads 1-0. Timbers show some pep in their step with a new 4-3-3 formation, but a defensive mistake late in the half costs them. As expected, we haven't seen the most torrid pace in this one, but Valencia's quality is on full display.
And we're back at it ... Lots of lineup changes to start the final 45. Horst, Perlaza, Zizzo, and Alhassan stay on the pitch, while Mike Fucito, Freddie Braun, Ryan Kawulok, Eric Alexander, Steve Purdy and Andrew Jean-Baptiste come on. Also, backup keeper Joe Bendik is on for the Timbers.
49th—Alexander with a nice first touch and aggressive run up the middle. He gets into the box but loses control as he gets in, and Alves is there to control.
50th—Piatti takes one at the top of the box and fires one left-footed, but Bendik is there with a nice tip to send it wide. Corner kick for Valencia is defended and cleared.
52nd—Aduriz with a nice turn to fend off Kawulok, and fires one just over the net. Quality touch, turn and shot there for the first-half goal scorer.
53rd—A couple of nice chances for Portland. Zizzo sends one in front for Braun, but he just misses a header. Kawulok gathers it in and fires it into Perlaza in front, but he can't convert. Still, these Timbers reserves are picking up the pace.
54th—Piatti gets behind Jean-Baptiste and takes a shot that gets past Bendik, but it's wide of the far post.
57th—Valencia will take a corner after Purdy does well to deflect an attempted cross out of danger. On the counter, the Timbers clear ahead to Perlaza, who can't maintain control. Valencia plays it back and starts to slow things down a bit.
58th—Bright Dike enters for Perlaza, while Rodney Wallace is on for Zizzo.
59th—Kawulok sends a cross in front and both Dike and Wallace swing and miss. It leads to a corner kick for Portland, but Valencia defends.
61st—Timbers miss a chance as Alhassan and Alexander go back-and-forth in the box. Alexander plays it forward in what would've been a dangerous spot, but Alhassan was hanging back and watches it roll over the goal line. TA lets out a frustrated moan. On the counter, Piatti gets ahead, but Horst rides him down at the of box. No foul.
63rd—Pardo drags Dike down from behind about 35 yards out and it'll be a free kick for Portland—along with a yellow card for Pardo. Timbers try to loft it in, but the Valencia defense is there to clear.
65th—Braun gets a bit of space and fires a shot from 25 yards out, but it's just wide left. Timbers Army lets out a gasp, and for good reason: Freddie nearly tied this one up.
67th—Horst with a long ball into the box and it's a great first touch by Fucito, who knocks it straight down and fires a shot. It's wide left, but some nice footwork there from the newest Timber.
68th—Brent Richards enters for Alhassan.
71st—Valencia plays a long ball for a pair of forwards, but Purdy is between them and knocks it away nicely.
73rd—Attendance announced at 19,564. Not sure that many fans are in the seats, but a near-sellout nonetheless.
74rd—Valencia slowing things down a bit, but Portland's reserves are still running. Wallace crosses one in front for Dike, who collides with Alves in front of the goal. A foul is called, but Dike and Alves slap hands. It's a friendly, after all.
75th—Kawulok with a long throw forward for Dike, who does well to maintain possession and get a shot off. Tough angle, but he launches it well high and wide.
77th—Nice bit of offensive push for Portland, spurred by some great footwork from Wallace at midfield. Crisp passing by Alexander and Dike gets it forward, but Richards gets his legs tangled a bit and can't get to it.
80th—Some more fine run-of-play from Portland leads to a Wallace cross that's deflected over the goal line for a Timbers corner.
81st—Timbers send it in far post and Horst gets a header on it, but it bounces back in front and Valencia clears.
83rd—Valencia earns a free kick in the Southeast corner and Costa takes it. He sends it in front of the goal, but Purdy heads it away.
84th—Fucito with a great steal deep in Valencia's end and after making his way toward the net, passes back to a wide open Dike. Bright hammers it and it's screaming toward the goal, but Richards gets in the way and knocks it over the goal line. Unlucky for Portland, which had the equalizer all but gift-wrapped for them. This one should be tied.
86th—Chris Taylor enters for Horst, who plays 85 minutes in his first match back this season after injuring his hip in the preseason. Looks like the same old Horst out there, i.e. physically imposing.
87th—Long ball flicked ahead by Dike, and Fucito again is there to run it down and make Alves a bit nervous. He tries a shot, but it's deflected back off him and over the line at full speed for a Valencia goal kick.
89th—I spy Kris Boyd (I think—it's a long ways), standing in the tunnel behind the goal and below the main capo stand. Timbers continuing to press, but Valencia is holding firm.
Three minutes of stoppage ... Valencia happy to pass it along their back line and make the Timbers chase. ... Valencia dominating possession since the clock turned 90 ... Timbers finally get it and it'll be a throw from Taylor. Last chance? Throw finds Taylor, who heads it to Fucito, who flicks it ahead to Kawulok. Valencia knocks it away though, and that's all she wrote.
FULL TIME: Valencia wins, 1-0. So what can the Timbers take from this one heading into a Cascadia Cup showdown with Vancouver?
"Nothing whatsoever," Spencer said during his post-game presser. "It has no relevance to the game on Saturday. It's an exhibition game and we played two different teams tonight."
Of course, for an irrelevant match, the Timbers sure played a number of regular starters, a decision Spencer said was made with the fans—and the down economy—in mind.
"I think we have the duty to the public who's paying money to watch the team play," Spencer said. "Paying good money—hard-earned cash—in this economy to come and watch the team play, then we've got to play a lot of the guys who play regular."
I'm not sure every fan would agree with that, but either way, a total of 18 Timbers were able to test themselves against a top-flight club tonight. And since everyone stayed healthy, all's well that ends well, right? In any case, Valencia was certainly impressive.
"They just pass and run and there's always a third run," Wallace said. "They connect well and the final ball for them is always dangerous."
"Everybody always thinks from afar you can coach in Europe and play in Europe," he said. "It's a different level completely, and it should be because they're spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their playing staff. Our league is only 15-16 years old, and we have a long way to go."
But the Timbers have a short turnaround before their next match, a Cascadia Cup derby against rival Vancouver. Horst, who returned to action for the first time this season after expecting to be out up to seven months, said tonight was a great chance for guys to stay sharp against a top opponent.
"The game this weekend is the biggest game of the year," Horst said. "We've been playing well recently, and you know, we get another win, we start moving in the right direction in the table."
Spencer's full post-match presser: