The final 2-0 scoreline made it look like a routine home win, but it was far from it.
The Timbers made hard work of grinding out this victory over a heavily depleted New York Red Bulls side. Having taken the lead through Valeri at the beginning of the second half the home team finally sealed the game with a second from Mattocks in the 5th minute of added time – but only after weathering a heavy spell of New York pressure following Larrys Mabiala’s dismissal with 10 minutes remaining.
It was a vital three points for Portland and while they didn’t play particularly well, they finally showed some backbone in the face of adversity.
New York traveled to Portland directly from a grueling midweek US Open Cup semi-final victory that went to extra time in Cincinnati and rested the majority of their normal starters in Portland despite being only 5 points above the red line in the Eastern Conference. Top scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips and US internationalist Sacha Kljestan were among those on the bench for the visitors.
Caleb Porter had harsh words for his players following last weekend’s capitulation in Toronto and followed up with action – benching outside backs Powell and Vytas in favor of Valentin and Miller. Rookie Jeremy Ebobisse was given his first home start up front in place of Darren Mattocks. Adi, Ridgewell and Gleeson were all absent from the 18 due to injury.
Given Portland’s position in the standings and New York’s starting eleven nothing less than a win would have been acceptable. But in the first half at times they looked like the team that had traveled and played mid-week with only Blanco demonstrating urgency in the attack. He lofted a super pass over the Red Bulls defense on ten minutes forcing Robles out of his box to head clear from the advancing Ebobisse. A few minutes later the diminutive Argentine cut from the right wing past 2 defenders and swung a left footed shot just wide of the far post.
New York got a couple of early shots off from Veron and Lawrence but neither troubled Attinella in Portland’s goal.
The visitor’s kept their 3 at the back formation despite the personnel changes – which allowed the Timbers some room to operate down the flanks behind wing-backs Lade and Zizzo. But the home side’s crossing was not dangerous enough to take advantage of the space offered. In the middle it meant little room for Ebobisse to operate, though he did seem to have a speed advantage over Aurelien Collin if the right balls were played behind. But 27 minutes into the first half Collin had to leave the game with an injury and was replaced by Sean Davis – this forced move actually seemed to strengthen the visiting defense, eliminating a potentially advantageous match-up for Portland.
Blanco continued to prompt the home attack, setting up Chara for a wayward shot on 35 minutes and 5 minutes later finding Nagbe in the middle who had a more accurate shot – over Robles, but back off the cross-bar.
Portland looked more dangerous than the visitors in the first half, but possession was even and they never truly dominated the make-shift visiting team as they would have liked.
At the start of the second half Nagbe and Blanco switched wings for a time, but the attack was still a bit too sporadic and disjointed. In an effort to ignite the offense Porter replaced Ebobisse with Mattocks on 58 minutes. The youngster had worked hard, but it proved a steep learning curve – and perhaps one that should have been undertaken earlier in the season, by giving him meaningful minutes before a must win game. Portland’s midfield also shouldered some of the blame for his not being effective, they played too many balls into him as if he were a hold-up forward like Adi, instead of giving him the chance to run off the defender’s shoulders into the channels behind.
Jesse Marsch made a defensive adjustment a couple of minutes later, bringing former Portland draft pick Aaron Long into the center of defense and pushing Sean Davis into midfield. This move might be questioned when they review the game as Portland opened the scoring just 5 minutes later. Following a Portland throw down the right wing Chara pressured Kemar Lawrence into an error and as Long appealed for a foul the Colombian picked out Valeri in the box with an excellent low cross. The Argentine calmly swept it home in the confident manner of a player at the top of his game.
Chara continued to have an immense game in the second half, doing everything in his power to make his assisted goal stand-up as the game winner with a plethora of interceptions and tackles.
The Red Bulls were now forced to spring one of their main offensive weapons from the bench, Sacha Kljestan coming in for Derrick Etienne who had just been booked for a high tackle. New York came out of their shell and stat to push for an equalizer. But Portland looked dangerous on the counter, a Blanco cross on 71 minutes just missing Mattocks.
Then with 10 minutes to go things got interesting.
Mabiala had kept Gonzalo Veron in check easily for much of the game, but he lost him for a moment and was forced to pull him back just outside the box to prevent a one on one with the keeper. It was a good foul to give up under the circumstances but left referee Allen Chapman no option but to reach for the red card.
Mabiala had a good game, aerially dominant and quick to step out to cut out danger. However, that willingness to step up aggressively can take him slightly out of position leaving him vulnerable to a quick through ball. In that respect he is a little like previous Portland defender Norberto Paparatto – potentially a good partner for a more conservative defender like Ridgewell.
As the Red Bulls prepared to take the free kick Valentin came to the bench needing to sub out – it looked for a while like Portland would only have 8 outfield players to defend the free kick. But eventually they were able to bring in Powell for Valentin and Vytas for Blanco, with Roy Miller sliding across from left back to center back.
Kljestan hovered hungrily over the free kick, right in the center and just a couple of yards outside the penalty box. But it was rolled to Fidel Escobar, whose low drive went just wide. The Red Bulls kept the pressure up with former Timber Sal Zizzo having the best chance of an equalizer – he got on the end of a nice Lawrence cross but Attinella came up big to stop his header.
After enduring a nervous 5 minutes of injury time it was a fun ending for the home team and fans as Chara set Valeri free on a counter with Robles having left his net to join a set-piece attack. Valeri could have chipped him from the halfway line – but ever unselfish, waited patiently for the correct moment to square to Mattocks for an easy finish.
It wasn’t an easy win, but it was one that demonstrated some strength in the face of adversity, which might be exactly what Portland needed.
Full Prost photo gallery for this game is here.