PORTLAND, Ore. – The Portland Timbers had been there before.
Up a goal in the closing minutes of a game, only to watch the result slip through their fingers. The Timbers had squandered leads in their three previous matches during a painful four-game losing streak.
But holding a 1-0 lead Saturday night against Sporting Kansas City, play stopped for an injury in the 78th minute. That when Portland’s veterans huddled the team together and said, 'Not this time.'
For the next 17 minutes, the Timbers stood toe-to-toe with the hottest team in MLS and came away with a much-needed victory in front of a sold-out crowd Jeld-Wen Field.
HIGHLIGHTS: POR 1, KC 0
“We kind of got everybody together and said, ‘Hey, it’s time that we’ve got to prove it not only to ourselves but to everyone else that we can close teams out and get a shutout,’” Timbers midfielder and captain Jack Jewsbury said. “That was very important for us tonight.”
Ultimately, the Timbers didn’t shy away from a physical SKC side and limited them to just three shots on goal. And judging by the referee’s whistle, Portland was actually the aggressor, getting called for 16 fouls to Kansas City’s 12.
“They are a big physical team, and they will roll you over,” Timbers head coach John Spencer said. “And I think we stood up to them tonight.”
Portland was also handed three yellow cards to Kansas City’s two as the teams came together several times for brief shoving matches.
“They put us in difficult situations,” Timbers defender Steve Purdy said. “And when there’s 50-50 balls you’ve just go to put yourself in there and win the ball. And when that happens a lot of times you’re going to get hit. Those are necessary as a defender, and you’re going to take a beating sometimes.”
There was also a tactical change that led to Portland’s first shutout of the year – Spencer inserted Lovel Palmer, who normally plays as an outside defender, into a defensive midfield position to focus on Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi.
That pushed Diego Chara, the usual defensive midfielder, out wide.
“We just felt that, from the video and watching [Zusi] two or three times, everything that comes through him usually leads to goals or assists,” Spencer said.
And with Palmer shadowing him, Zusi had just one shot and made 15 unsuccessful passes. It was redemption of sorts for Palmer, who was benched last week in Portland’s 3-1 loss to the L.A. Galaxy.
“I thought he did a tremendous job,” Spencer said. “It was probably his best game as a Portland Timber.”
And with Portland’s recent history of surrendering late goals undoubtedly haunting them in the game’s final stretch, the seconds on the clock had a way of lingering.
“The last 17 minutes took forever,” Purdy said. “It’s definitely a big thing that it’s off our shoulder finally. The last few weeks have been really difficult.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.