It was six months ago tonight.
Portland's Major League Soccer franchise held a grand opening on a rain-soaked April evening, basking in the warmth of its fanatical supporters and earning the first victory of a inaugural big-league season. The atmosphere was electric, the result for Timbers fans; perfect.
Like a number of nights at Jeld-Wen Field this season (wins over Los Angeles and Independiente of Argentina come to mind) Timbers fans walked out of the House of Pane saying, "Who cares if we make the playoffs? That was worth the price of a season ticket." But half a year later, moral victories must take a backseat. With three matches left, the Timbers still have a shot at this thing.
And Portland could very well make a big move in the MLS playoff standings after both DC and Chicago lost on Wednesday night. Victory tonight against Houston (7:30 p.m. on ROOT, 750 AM) would lift Portland into a tie with both New York and Houston and put the Timbers five points clear of the United and Fire with two matches left on the schedule. Portland also has a game in hand over the Dynamo and Red Bulls. Neither Portland nor Houston have seen action in 12 days, and the Timbers' will look to capture the warm feelings created by their toppling of Cascadia rival Vancouver in BC on Oct. 2 to keep those playoff hopes simmering.
With just two road wins this season, Portland needs three points tonight. Badly. Unless PTFC can both win its way into the playoffs AND get past a first-round Wild Card match-up, this will be the final match of the season at Jeld-Wen Field. Can the Timbers give their Army one last reason to smile its way into the offseason?
Join me after the jump as I deftly describe all the action, on and off the pitch.
Houston—Tally Hall in goal. Carlo Costly and Calen Carr up front. Brad Davis, Luiz Camargo, Adam Moffat and Danny Cruz at midfield. Corey Ashe, Geoff Cameron, Bobby Boswell and Andre Hainault on defense. Davis is the captain.
Portland—Troy Perkins in goal. Darlington Nagbe and Kenny Cooper up front. Kalif Alhassan, Diego Chará, Jack Jewsbury and Sal Zizzo at midfield. Mike Chabala, Futty Danso, Eric Brunner and Lovel Palmer on the back line. Jewsbury returns to action and is the captain.
PREGAME: Old friendships abound tonight as Palmer and Chabala face their old 'mates and coach John Spencer hosts the side that gave him his first MLS coaching opportunity.
Moffatt (who began the season as a starter for Portland, was traded in July and scored a miraculous goal during Houston's 2-1 defeat of Portland on Aug. 14) returns to the Rose City tonight. Ironically, his green-clad photo is featured on many season tickets and it will be interesting to see what kind of reception TA gives him.
Another thing to keep an eye on tonight is the head referee's breast pocket: Chará, Chabala, Wallace and Marcelin will all be suspended for Wednesday's match should they be shown a yellow card tonight, and the first two in particular would be devastating losses.
Cool tifo display by the home side (I'll upload a video later) and now Cap'n Jack addresses the crowd at midfield, calling them "the best fans this league has ever seen." One note: today was the last day for season ticket holders to renew their seats, and 94% did just that. There's now 5,000 people on the waiting list for 2012 seats. Think soccer's caught on in the Rose City?
And we're underway ... Timbers could use a quick start.
1st minute—Lots of smoke billowing above the field and two quick throw-ins for Portland. Chabala, notorious for getting a few extra yards on up the line on his throws, is warned. Rain falling pretty steady, though not as heavy as it was six months ago.
2nd—Davis has a bit of a lane, but trips over the ball. Timbers clear.
3rd—Timbers with a run down the east side, but Houston defends. Dynamo possessing a bit more early, but the Creamsicle-clad vistors are mostly harmless so far.
4th—Nagbe leaves one for Palmer, who dribbles up and fires from 40 yards. It's blasted high, but look for him to take plenty of those tonight. He'd love to score against his old club.
5th—Jewsbury and Moffatt get tangled up at midfield. They're jawing a bit. Maybe Jack's welcoming him back? Rain really starting to come down now.
6th—Camargo with some possession at the top of the box but Jewsbury steals it. Zizzo with a nice run down the east side, but he hangs on a bit too long and it's taken away.
7th—Nagbe draws a foul just inside Houston's end. Timbers try to play it quickly, but the ref calls it back to the spot. Jewsbury plays one to the top of the area, but Moffat gets to it before Futty.
9th—Chabala keeps a bounding ball alive at midfield and Chará takes over, finding Cooper streaking down the east side of the area. He fires one left-footed, but it's hurried and just wide. Not the best strike, but good aggression early from Portland.
10th—Nagbe dancing around and runs along the top of the box to fire a shot, but it's immediately knocked down.
11th—Alhassan tripped in the center circle and draws the foul. Short free kick played down the west side and eventually gets to Cooper. He crosses nicely to a sliding Nagbe, who can't re-direct it enough. Timbers keeping Hall on his toes in the early going, likely just what they were hoping for.
13th—Dynamo trying to slow things down a bit here with some possession. They play a long ball to Costly, but it's too far and pink-clad Perkins picks it up.
14th—Cruz with an aggressive run near the top of Portland's box, but Futty is there to defend and clear.
16th—Brunner called for holding Costly. Free kick coming from 35 yards out.
17th—Davis back-heels to Moffat, who blasts it wide left. He was looking for some of that magic that sent his goal against Portland a few months back into the net. Must've left it in Texas.
18th—Camargo crosses inside to a flying Davis for a header, but it's high. Decent opportunity for the Dynamo there. Their best of the night, really.
19th—Timbers try to play one into Cooper, but he's caught offside. But not before he falls down in the box. Vintage KFC.
20th—Chabala dragged down from behind after a run across midfield. He and Davis have some words and Mike better be careful—Portland needs him next week.
22nd—Houston tries to play a long one into Carr, but Brunner is there to head it back to Perkins.
23nd—Palmer plays a long one into the box and it's knocked away right to Chará. It either hit his palm or Cooper was offside, and it's whistled dead. On the ensuing possession, Zizzo is knocked down just outside the box, but it's a no-call. Fans don't like it.
24th—Zizzo with another run, and again, he's taken down, this time inside the box. No call, and TA hates that one even more. Sal didn't have the best angle there, and might've been better to pass it away.
26th—Chabala with a long throw-in to a wide-open Nagbe. He tees it up but can't get the shot off before a Houston defender knocks it down immediately. After a short Houston possession, Nagbe is taken down at midfield, but no call. As the fans boo, Houston with a run into Portland's box and Camargo gets a shot away, but Perkins goes to the turf to get it. Dangerous moment there for Houston, which is playing very physical right now. How will Portland respond?
27th—Palmer with another long blast, this one from 30 yards, but it's just high. He'll keep taking that one tonight. Futty with some dangerous dribbling in front and his first attempt at a clearance is knocked down back into the area. He finally gets a better foot on it and clears.
29th—Nagbe with a real nifty pass to Cooper, but he can't control. It's cleared over the goal line by Houston, however, and Portland gets the first corner of the night.
30th—Jewsbury swings it in to Futty, but it's too high for him. Another corner coming.
31st—Chabala takes this one, and it makes its way to Alhassan. He goes for his fave upper right corner, but Hall is there to leap and grab it.
32nd—A Cruz shot blocked, but Portland can't clear. Cruz comes back to the top of the box and Alhassan makes a steal. Portland letting Houston hang around a bit at times in the worst possible area. If they keep that up, it could cost them.
34th—Nagbe with a nice move and ball to get it into the box with Zizzo, but he doesn't get a good first touch on it. He tries to knock it to Chará in the middle of the box, but he's defended. Zizzo is down in the northeast corner but Houston makes a run into Portland's end and earns a foul in a dangerous spot.
36th—HOUSTON GOAL Davis plays a free kick right past the wall and into the back of the net. Cameron celebrating like he re-directed, but that one might have been re-directed. Dynamo lead 1-0. Hainault credited with the goal and Portland finds itself behind. Zizzo is back on the field, but hobbling a bit.
38th—Chabala with a long throw into the box and Futty gets a header on it, but Hall is there to nab it. Timbers need to respond here. Plenty of time to make something happen before half.
40th—Portland looking a bit disjointed at the moment. Alhassan and Nagbe can't connect at midfield and Houston is happy to take it away and kick it around a bit.
41st—Alhassan dribbles out of a triple-team and plays a long one to Zizzo, who appears to be back at full speed. Hall sprints off his line to grab it before Sal can get to it.
42nd—Cooper gets his pocket picked at midfield and Houston continues to be the aggressor. Dynamo earn a corner kick after Camargo attempts a shot that's deflected and Perkins can't chase it down.
43rd—Corner played into traffic and it bounces around. Cooper whiffs on a header, but he's fouled and Portland is lucky to get the ball back. On the ensuing possession Alhassan plays one into the box for a streaking Zizzo, but it's just out of his reach.
45th—Perkins with a long goal kick and we'll have two minutes of extra time.
Long clearance headed by Futty, but it lands right back in front of him. Timbers finally clear. Timbers mount a bit of an attack and Jewsbury is fouled 40 yards out, straight-on. Cooper stalking the free kick. Jewsbury plays it back to Palmer, but he dribbles a bit too long and his shot is knocked down.
HALFTIME: Spencer "chatting" with the ref at midfield, and that's the first time I've seen that this season. He can't argue this away: Houston leads 1-0 and Portland is getting out-muscled on its home field. They'll need to turn it around in the second half, or the next two away matches may turn into a formality.
And we're back at it ... Perlaza on for Zizzo.
46th—Just got the first-half stats. Houston out-shot Portland 8-7 and out-fouled Portland 7-4.
47th—Nagbe with a run up the middle and lays it off the Chabala. He crosses in and Perlaza is there, but Hall knocks it away and out of danger.
48th—Alhassan tripped up at midfield. Dynamo kicking it around the backline and biding their time. Pass to Carr cut off by Palmer, but he can't control and it's a Houston throw coming.
50th—Chabala is leveled at midfield and he went down in a heap. He's motionless, face down at midfield and Cruz is shown the yellow card.
51st—Mike's legs are definitely wobbly after he took a shoulder square to the grill. He's on the sideline now and concussion tests are being administered.
52nd—Chabala passes the tests and is back on. Timbers looking like they did in the first half, which is to say they're lacking energy. For Portland to equalize, they'll need to pick it up.
53rd—Chará with a steal and finds Perlaza, who makes a run. He trips over the ball, though and Houston gets it back. Perlaza again finds some space, but his attempted cross is rejected into the corner. Not enough to cross the line, though, and the ball is just not bouncing Portland's way at the moment.
56th—Timbers, offensively at least, are not in synch. Little possession, less rhythm. They need a spark and soon.
57th—Brunner plays one long to Nagbe, I think. Way long for him and way wide for Palmer. Cooper with a steal and makes his way to the top of the box, but Cameron defends and Cooper hits the deck. No foul there and the ref warns KFC for diving.
59th—HOUSTON GOAL Cruz from distance and finds the upper V. Perkins with a full extension, but it's a great left-footed strike. Dynamo lead 2-0 and they're celebrating at midfield. Portland's season is officially on the brink.
60th—Perlaza takes an elbow 40 yards out and Chabala lines up a free kick. He swings it in high and Hall goes airborne to nab it.
62nd—Palmer plays one long for Jewsbury, but his speed ain't what it used to be. Goal kick coming for Houston.
63rd—Palmer with a throw into Alhassan, who plays it back. He crosses in front and Perlaza (I think) re-directs it to send it toward the net, but Hall with a diving save to preserve the two-goal lead. A fantastic save by Hall, who's having a great match.
66th—Kalif plays one forward to Perlaza, but he's bodied by a Houston defender and can't get to it. Horst coming on for Chabala—a bit of an odd substitution considering Portland needs to score.
68th—Nagbe with a great cross to wide-open Cooper, but his header is pushed just wide. A golden opportunity missed there as Cooper did about everything right, but couldn't finish.
69th—A couple of chances in front after a great Chará pass finds Perlaza. Cooper has a couple of chances on it, but he goes down in the box. Play continues and the ball makes its way out to Alhassan, but his low shot is harmless and Portland squanders another chance. Frustrating few minutes for KFC.
70th—Was just told Zizzo has a strained right knee and will be evaluated tomorrow.
72nd—Jewsbury blasts a free kick into the box and Brunner saves it from going over the goal line. Nobody must've been expecting it, because everyone in green was standing around. Looks like Bright Dike is readying to enter.
73rd—Chará plays one down the line for Perlaza, who gets it back to his fellow Colombian. Diego floats one into the box, but Hall is there to gather it in.
74th—Dike comes on for Cooper. Is that the last Portland's home crowd will see Kenny this season? Ever? For Houston, Colin Clark comes in for Davis. That was Portland's last sub, so this will be the team that finishes here. Desperation time.
75th—Dike almost immediately called for a foul. He brings Portland's physicality, but it might be about 75 minutes too late. Timbers kicking it around the backline and Brunner has it stolen, but it's knocked away for a Portland throw.
76th—For Houston, Je-Vaughn Watson comes on for Camargo.
78th—Houston playing prevent D and Portland's looking for an opening. Alhassan is dragged down from behind to draw a foul about 30 yards out. Free kick coming.
79th—Jewsbury blasts one form straight on, but it's well high. Time running out for Portland.
80th—Portland having trouble clearing and Houston is quick to pounce. Nothing dangerous for the Dynamo, but not exactly inspired play from the Timbers when they need it most. Tick, tick, tick.
81st—For Houston, Will Bruin enters for Carr.
82nd—Clark plays it into the box and Perkins is there to grab it. Dike flicks one into the box for Palmer, but he can't get to it.
83rd—Alhassan plays one into the box after a throw-in and finds Futty, but his header is off the mark. He appears to blame Dike for the mis-hit and lets him know. Reality setting in here for Portland.
84th—Corner by Houston played in and Cameron gets a piece of it, but it's harmless. Perkins booms a goal kick and Jewsbury draws a foul just inside midfield.
85th—Jewsbury boots it into the box and Dike gets a touch, but it's knocked away. Brunner tries to knock it back in, but Houston defends well.
86th—Alhassan dances away from the defense and finds Palmer, but he shanks it. That about sums it up.
87th—Horst taken down hard and that'll earn Watson a yellow card. Horst back on his feet, but that could've been a big-time collision. Everyone forward for Portland and Perkins pacing.
88th—TA singing "I can't help falling in love with you" chant for the final time this season.
89th—Alhassan fouled at midfield and time continues to tick away. Ball played into Dike, but it's too easy for Hall. And he takes his time setting up a punt.
90th—Three minutes of stoppage time ... Diego fouled deep in Portland's end and this one is winding down. Not much of a fight late in the match here by Portland, which just didn't have it tonight, all night. Free kick for Portland in the final seconds, and Jewsbury lobs it into Horst. He gets a head on it, but Hall knocks it away.
FINAL: Houston wins 2-0. A huge win for them and a devastating loss for Portland. Both teams were contenders entering the night, but only one team played like it. Houston leaps into second place in the east, while Portland—though technically not yet eliminated—are all but done. And you can see it in their body language. Heads are hanging, but a few players are holding a big "THANK YOU" sign and walking around the pitch clapping for fans. All sellouts this season, including tonight. I'm headed downstairs, but will be back with more thoughts and Spencer's presser shortly.
Back from the locker room, and the Timbers are saying all the right things, but you can tell from the body language they know they're done. Lots of "stranger things have happened" and "were not out of this yet" but unless a team that's won twice on the road all season doubles their away victory output in the next eight days, Portland's inaugural season won't go beyond regular.
Some final stats: Portland out-shot Houston 12-11 and each team had three shots on goal. Two corners a piece and three saves by Tally Hall. The big stat: Houston out-fouled Portland 20-10, a real indication of which side was more physical tonight.