Portland Timbers credit improving defense to maintaining leads: "We've progressed in that regard"

BEAVERTON, Ore. – As the Portland Timbers prepare for another game that, on paper, should result in them snagging three points, they’ll no doubt draw on the final 10 minutes of their 4-0 win last Saturday over Toronto FC.

During that span, the Timbers unleashed a barrage of three goals on hapless TFC to turn a previously tight match into a rout. Before that, however, the Timbers weren’t exactly dominating a team that had recently hit the reset button on the 2013 season after saying goodbye to their general manager.

Toronto were pushing forward, winning corner kicks – five in the second half, to be exact – and creating a lot of unexpected stress on the home team that had dominated the run of play in the first half.

“That’s been an issue for us recently when we’ve given up points,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said. “They had some corner kicks and we’re at 1-0 and we’re one play away from losing the game and our guys looked very big and up for it in those moments. That’s key. We can build on that. There have been other games where we’ve shrunk in those moments and not made plays and in this game we did make plays.”

Lapses by Portland in key moments have indeed allowed points to slip through their hands, something they’re no doubt looking to prevent in Saturday’s game at last-place Chivas USA.

In the Timbers’ 1-0 loss Aug. 25 to rival Seattle, it was a 60th-minute header goal by Eddie Johnson off a free kick that stung Portland in front of a packed house at CenturyLink Field. Up to that point, Portland had given Seattle all they could handle but failed to convert on a goal.

In a 3-3 draw at home against Real Salt Lake Aug. 21, Portland took a 3-2 lead into second-half stoppage time only to allow RSL to net the equalizer right before the final whistle.

A late corner kick goal by Vancouver resulted in a 1-1 draw on Aug. 3 at JELD-WEN.

“I think that’s a real positive that we’ve progressed in that regard,” Porter said. “We’ve been working on it, talking about it, basically just changing our mentality in those moments, those key critical moments when you have to make plays to win the game. If you don’t, you tie the game. For us to make those plays when we had to, I think gives us a lot of confidence moving forward in those moments.”

Of course it helped to have their captain and central midfielder Will Johnson back on the field after he missed the previous four games with a shoulder injury. Also, attacking midfielder Diego Valeri, who started on the bench due to a knock he picked up the previous week, came on for the final 15 minutes and completely changed the game.

Valeri assisted on a Rodney Wallace goal in the 83rd minute to all but put the game away. And then the Argentinean scored in stoppage time for the fourth goal. It virtually allowed Portland to shift the balance and play defense by pressing on offense.

“We also have to give credit to the pressure we’re putting on teams,” Wallace said. “For example, the pressure that Diego Valeri put on the central defender to free me up and get the goal. Pressure, movement, and at the same time keeping the defenders back.”

And, of course, a big win never hurts the confidence.

“It’s something to build on,” goalkeeper Milos Kocic said. “We’re going to Chivas USA now, and I think it’s going to be a very interesting game because they are not the same team we played against at the beginning of the year. I think they’re much stronger now and it’s going to be a tough test for us.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.