The Portland Timbers play-off dreams ended courtesy of a 2-1 home loss to the Houston Dynamo on Sunday evening. A good first half from the home team team saw them take a 39th minute lead with a nice goal from Dairon Asprilla. They would have loved to have taken that 1-0 into the locker room at half-time but a crucial Houston equalizer off a set-piece minutes later meant they would need another goal in the second half. But it was the visitors who found the net next, a long, low drive from substitute Mauro Manotas beating Jeff Attinella in the Portland goal. The Timbers now required 2 goals and despite referee Ismail Elfath playing 8 minutes of added time the Timbers failed to respond. Houston held onto their lead comfortably as the home side failed to muster even a single shot in response.
In the first leg in Houston last week the Timbers failed to get an away goal, which always left them susceptible to a Houston away goal in this leg putting them in a tight spot. They would have taken the 0-0 draw though, particularly given the fact that they lost 3 players to injury in that game. Of those 3 only Darlington Nagbe was able to return to the starting line-up for the return leg. Diego Chara had surgery on a broken foot during the week and Larrys Mabiala could not return either. Roy Miller came in for Mabiala in Houston and would have been expected to start this game, but ruptured his Achilles tendon in training during the week.
Lawrence Olum stepped into the center back role beside Ridgewell – after 22 starts in the regular season he was a back-up in name only as the Timbers injury woes left them unable to keep a consistent back four all year. Amobi Okugo had subbed in for Chara in Houston and held onto that starting spot in the defensive midfield beside David Guzman. Normally when one of Chara or Guzman has been out this season Porter has preferred to drop Darlington Nagbe back rather than look his back-ups. However Sebastian Blanco (scalded foot – not a common injury listing) had missed the Houston game and was only fit to start on the bench in this one. So Nagbe was needed in attack with Dairon Asprilla starting on the other side of Valeri.
Fanendo Adi (remember him – Portland’s top scorer in the last 2 seasons) was still out with a hamstring injury that has apparently developed into tendon complications, so Darren Mattocks was up top for the home side.
OK that’s the feature size injury report out of the way, now onto the game.
And we start with – you guessed it – an injury. Darren Mattocks was hammered in a tough aerial duel and had to be subbed out after only 13 minutes, making way for the rookie Jeremy Ebobisse. Despite the enforced pre-game and in-game adjustments Portland enjoyed a good start to the game.
They got good penetration down both wings and forced Houston into some dangerous fouls around the box. Valeri, as he is prone to do, hit the first of these set-piece opportunities into the first defender, but his second was much better. A floated ball to Ridgewell on the far post, whose header back across the box almost forced an own goal. The home side’s first good look on goal came from an excellent Asprilla header from a 23rd minute corner. But Joe Willis, in the Houston’s net following the arrest of their starter during the week on domestic violence charges, made a great save down to his right.
From open play Houston had a pretty effective strategy – mark Diego Valeri out of the game. They did that very well and despite Swiss international Philippe Senderos being slower than an Alpine glacier (even in times of climate change) he had enough experience to be able to marshal the rookie Ebobisse. So Portland didn’t have a lot going on in the middle. But they owned the wings.
Fast re-starts by Attinella and raking long balls from David Guzman released Portland’s wide-men.
Dairon Asprilla had couple of very nice crosses from the right but Portland’s opener came from a cross to the far post from Vytas on the left. Dylan Remick slipped, affording Asprilla some time to control the ball on his thigh and lash it into the roof of the net from close range. Despite the defensive error it was still a very nice finish from Portland’s best attacker on the night.
But Portland’s lead lasted only 4 minutes. Houston’s only previous chance of the half had come from an Alberth Elis header on a second phase ball following a set-piece. Their equalizer came from the same source.
A free-kick floated into the box should have been cleared by Powell, but Asprilla jumping right in front of him have may have distracted him enough to allow Houston’s Jalil Anibaba to win the knock down. Dylan Remick made up for his earlier slip with a nice finish over his shoulder on the half volley.
Amobi Okugo had an overhead kick go just wide just before the half time whistle – but Portland would need to score again in the second half, with a 1-1 tie putting Houston through on away goals.
Portland pressed early in the second half, a Diego Valeri free-kick sneaked in on frame at the near post but Willis was alert to it.
Porter made an early change in the 55th minute, taking out Okugo and bringing Nagbe back to the central position with Blanco coming in on the left side. It was nominally a switch that would boost Portland’s attack, but it didn’t really work out. Blanco had been dangerous for Portland as the regular season closed out, but could not get into the game effectively against Houston.
Instead it was a Houston substitute who landed the killer blow.
Erick Torres didn’t get a lot going except for a few fights with Liam Ridgewell, but when Mauro Manotas replaced him in the 73rd minute he took only 4 minutes to find the net. He was able to drive into the right channel and let fly with a nice low blast to the far corner. Ridgewell stepped up, but left him ample room to shoot, though it was a position defenders are usually happy to see hopeful shots coming from. This one skipped off the artificial turf and the bounce deceived Attinella. It was a good hit, but the keeper’s reaction made it apparent he felt he might have stopped it.
Portland’s response to this set-back was very disappointing. Needing 2 goals they didn’t get even a shot on target for the rest of the game as Houston’s defense looked comfortable. In Adi’s absence they had no route one threat and the visitors where able to absorb and defend any attempts to pass around them.
Guzman had one of his best games of the season, defensively disciplined in Chara’s absence and displaying beautiful long range passing. But Nagbe beside him was largely anonymous – occasional drives forward invariably resulted in a lay-off wide or a turn and pass backwards at the first hint of pressure. When trailing at home in a play-off game that is not enough. Percentage play is OK for most of the season, but it was time to take some players on, show some hunger and leadership and drive into the box.
A rookie striker, a tightly marked Valeri, an out of sorts Blanco and an invisible Nagbe were not going to get Portland back into the game. They tried to go three at the back late on bringing in Jack Barmby as an additional attacking threat, but the Englishman’s passing was calibrated for a Wembley sized field, not Providence Park, as his crosses invariably went 30 yards past their target.
Houston are a pretty solid outfit and the mid-season additions of Martinez and Elis have certainly livened up their attack. They only won once on the road in all of the regular season, but picked a great time to do it in the play-offs. Having stopped an all-Cascadian Western final they will be confident they can upset the odds again in the final versus Seattle.
The Portland injury bug was very real and MLS referee’s lack of will to give out yellow cards in early play-off games did not facilitate a very flowing game. But even with a limited line-up the Timbers would have expected to be much more competitive at home to Houston with a capacity crowd behind them. After a good start to the game they went out with a whimper rather than a bang.
As it stands they will have an off season to heal up and decide whether to give the long tenured core of this team another season to prove itself again or take some tough decisions about rebuilding.