PORTLAND, Ore. – The wheels never completely came off, but the Portland Timbers have had so much go wrong in the first month of the season that they could have started questioning their methods.
In four games heading into Saturday’s match against the Houston Dynamo, the Timbers had not held one lead. They’d coughed up balls in the midfield and final third, and gotten hit on the counter and set pieces. And for the third year in a row, Portland found themselves on the wrong half of the Western Conference standings a month into the season.
Things got even worse in a scoreless first half Saturday against Houston when Timbers playmaker Diego Valeri and defender David Horst both went down with injuries.
So was it the last straw that resulted in a second-half brace for Timbers forward Ryan Johnson and a 2-0 victory for the first win under new head coach Caleb Porter?
Not according to Johnson. It was just sticking to the plan – keeping the faith.
“It doesn’t change what we’re trying to do,” said Johnson, who now has three goals on the season. “I just think the game opened up a little bit more for us. We’re fit, we’re in shape, we’re going to break down teams as the game goes on. If we’re not going to get the goal early, we’ll get the goal late.”
What Porter and the Timbers have been preaching all season – possession, relentless pressure, staying disciplined on defense – all came together against a team that has finished runner-up in the last two MLS Cups. Even without Valeri, the dynamic Argentinian maestro, Portland improved their possession numbers from the first half and fired off nine shots, five on goal, after the break.
“That shows that we’re a deep team,” Johnson said. “Even though we lost two very important players, we have guys who can step in and help us get the win.”
Kalif Alhassan subbed on for Valeri, pushing forward Darlington Nagbe to Valeri’s position of attacking midfielder. Rodney Wallace received his first start of the season. And Nagbe, midfielder Diego Chara and, obviously, Johnson were all dangerous in the attack.
“I thought it was a comprehensive performance on both sides of the ball,” Porter said. “And it really looked like what we want our identity to be here with the Portland Timbers. … It’s important to get results for the players to realize what they’re capable of doing and realize how powerful this way of playing can be.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.