BEAVERTON, Ore. – The ever-important first goal: It's usually a game-changer.
And it’s been the Achilles heel for the Portland Timbers over the past month. Conceding first came back to bite Portland once again in one of their biggest matches of the year, Sunday’s 1-0 loss to rival Seattle Sounders in front of nearly 70,000 fans at CenturyLink Field.
“When they found the goal, then it becomes a different game,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said. “Now we’re chasing, now we’re gambling, now we’re getting stretched. You don’t want to be in that position against this team because they’re very athletic and talented.”
The Timbers have conceded first in their last four losses dating back to early July, including a US Open Cup game Aug. 7 against Real Salt Lake. In fact, in Portland’s five total losses this season across all competition, they have conceded first five times. That's led to five one-goal defeats,a nd some pretty unimpeachable evidence.
The flip side is this: In their last nine wins, across all competition, Portland have scored first every time.
Porter has said all season that chasing the game is not where his club is at its best, despite finding possession and shot advantages in most of their games.
“I thought once they scored the first goal, to some extent, they now had more time and space to operate, which is to be expected, because we’re now pushing to try and level it,” Porter said. “But up to that point, we really looked to be a team that was in control, a team that was pushing the game, the team that was going to be in a position to win the game. Next thing you know, there’s a set piece and the whole game changes.”
Portland did jump out of the gates Sunday like a team on a mission, despite the absence of starting midfielders Will Johnson (shoulder injury) and Diego Chara (suspension). And while Seattle did win the possession battle in the first half, and for the game, Portland had two golden chances go awry in the first half.
First, in the 16th minute, Timbers forward Ryan Johnson had a one-on-one look with Sounders goalkeeper Michael Gspurning. But a hard first touch by Johnson allowed Gspurning to jump off his line to break up the chance. And in the 34th minute, midfielder Diego Valeri hit a screamer from distance that banged off the goalpost.
Seattle forward Eddie Johnson then made Portland pay in the 60th minute with a header goal off a set piece.
- Get more Portland Timbers news at PortlandTimbers.com
“The first half was big for us,” Timbers forward Darlington Nagbe said. “If we just would have put one away and got a goal in the first half, I feel like we would have come out in the second half and got more control of the ball and controlled the game, but when they got that first goal, it changed the game a little bit.”
It’s all led to a sour taste for the Timbers as they find ways to explain having turned in quality performances only to find the result lacking.
“Moral victories for me, for these guys, for our owner, for our supporters, they’re empty because we’re good enough,” Porter said. “If we weren’t good enough, we’d be saying ‘next year,’ we’d be saying ‘we’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet.’ We’re there. That was an even game. We’re right there. It’s not good enough – for me, the guys, anybody – for us to be saying at the end of games that we played well and lost, because we are good enough to win these games.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.