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Portland couldn't finish early opportunities and the Timbers just plain couldn't finish on Saturday.

They budded early, withered late and the Rose City roller coaster gave up its league-high ninth goal inside the final 15 minutes to vault Columbus into first place back east with a gritty 1-0 Crew victory.

That road win at Chicago last week? A harbinger it wasn't for Portland, which played well enough for most of the match to merit a result, but a failed clearance in the 79th minute that fell into the wrong feet proved to be a single miscue too many for the tough-luck Timbers.

"When you try and control the ball in the six-yard box and you take a bad touch, generally you're going to get punished and that's what happened to us," said head coach John Spencer after James Marcelin's miss led to a wild exchange up front and an Eddie Gaven score (originally labeled a Futty Danso own-goal). “I thought it was a very even game. It comes down to us making a mistake.”

Chalk up yet another tough road loss for Portland (6-10-3, 21 points), whose fans were hoping the Timbers had moved past their issues away. But the hand-wringing can hardly be as heavy after some definite flashes of successful football emerged, particularly in the first half and when rookie Darlington Nagbe was around the ball. To say the Timbers' top SuperDraft pick is emerging is like saying top offseason-signee Kenny Cooper is struggling: Nagbe had some tantalizing peeks at the goal early, and finished tied for a team-high four shots. Goals will undoubtedly come if he keeps getting those kind of looks, which are often preceded by increasingly dynamic moves.

In other words, Nagbe's about to bust loose, and at this point, the challenge of the 2011 Portland Timbers may be to get the defense shored up in time for the rookie's eventual breakout. It certainly couldn't hurt.

More after the jump, including thoughts on new starting defender Lovel Palmer, plus video highlights and EXTRA TIME links to make you feel less crudely crewed.

"I don't think a loss was a fair result tonight," said Spencer after Portland out-shot the crew 10-3 in the opening half. "We controlled most of the first half chances-wise."

Ah, but the aggression put on a different jersey in the second half, as each team finished with 18 total shots and Columbus stole points from a new-look Portland lineup: Palmer nabbed a starting nod after one practice session and Spencer seemed pleased with his play. Palmer's two strikes early set an aggressive tone, and the Jamaican international showed he was happy to heed Spencer's preaching about Portland putting shots on frame.

And along with Nagbe's growth, the increasingly impressive play of Diego Chará and Palmer's quick addition to the lineup, any amping-up of aggression is reason for optimism in Timberland. It didn't bring a result this week, but there's little doubt the Timbers are playing better than they were during their seven-match winless streak.

“It’s kind of been the story for us, we are getting punished by mistakes," said Portland defender Eric Brunner, returning from a one-match suspension to face his old team in his home state. "We are working really hard and it’s just one little thing and we are getting punished for it and if we clean that up we have the talent, and we have the right players, and the right system, it’s just those little things.”

The Timbers continue to learn the hard way that one flubbed clearance is all it takes to squander an opportunity. That needs to change, or "those little things" will continue to be a big problem.

EXTRA TIME! A half-filled stadium's worth of links.
• Assuming you tuned in after Fox 12's technical difficulties, you wouldn't have thought the Crew were one away from first out East, says Ryan Gates of Stumptown Footy, who calls for patience as the Timbers "take their lumps"
• The "sputtering" Timbers offense couldn't finish against a "stingy" Crew defense, says Kevin Hudson of Portland MLS Press.
• The Crew, "master of the scoreless draw and scorer of a league-low four first-half goals" is in first place? Shawn Mitchell of The Columbus Dispatch can't believe it either.
• The Timbers are at the House of Pane for their next three matches, starting with an exhibition against Independiente of Argentina at 8 p.m. Tuesday.