BEAVERTON, Ore. – The Portland Timbers have been one of the best defensive teams in MLS all season, a fact oftentimes overshadowed by their high-flying attack.
But after their scoreless draw Saturday against Real Salt Lake at JELD-WEN Field, perhaps the first-place Timbers, who clinched their first-ever playoff berth Saturday, should be known first for their defense with the offense playing second fiddle.
It has been especially true of late: Saturday’s clean sheet was Portland’s fifth consecutive at home, and in their last seven games they’ve allowed just three goals.
Head coach Caleb Porter said their recent form has been thanks in part to veterans Mamadou “Futty” Danso and Jack Jewsbury returning to the backline. But he also said that when it comes to playing important games late in the season against good teams, you’d better be tight, organized and, most of all, “pragmatic.”
“That’s really going to help us, honestly, in the playoffs,” Porter said.
Their defensive statistics have certainly been impressive.
Saturday marked the club’s 14th shutout of the season and league leading 11th at JELD-WEN. Portland held Real Salt Lake, the league’s top scoring club, without a single shot on goal, the first time the Timbers have accomplished that feat in their MLS history.
During their current run of shutout play at home, they’ve not allowed more than three shots on goal to any one team. And then, of course, there’s goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, who recorded his 13th clean sheet of the season, a new career high that is tied for the most in MLS.
““I think it all comes down to a goalkeeper that’s very vocal,” Danso said. “… Playing alongside Pa [Modou Kah], Jack and Mike [Harrington], they all have experience in this league, so that helps a lot.”
Porter said their recent string of games, with four out of the last five coming against teams currently in the playoff picture, have provided an authentic preview into what high-stakes soccer is all about. In that stretch, the Timbers have beaten Colorado, the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders all by a 1-0 score line. Throw in Saturday’s stalemate, and it’s easy see what Porter is talking about.
“[Your opponents] are good too and they have good goalkeepers and good coaches and their teams are organized,” Porter said. “I think the games we’ve played recently are just realistic. … That’s just a normal high-level game.”
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Porter said that their tempered approach is somewhat of an adjustment from earlier in the season when the Timbers were more comfortable throwing numbers forward. That’s been apparent in the relatively low number of six goals scored in their last six games.
"You’ve got to play pragmatic, that’s just what you do,” Porter said. “You’re smart, you’re organized, keep it tight, you find your moments to score goals, knowing in a tournament format those that just throw caution to the wind and throws numbers forward, they don’t win that way. It never works.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.