Portland Timbers return to form with long-awaited first clean sheet

PORTLAND, Ore.—It was a night of firsts for the Portland Timbers this season: Their first clean sheet and their first goal scored off a header, which was also their first set-piece service goal.

And they did it all playing down a man for 45 minutes, beating the San Jose Earthquakes 1-0 at Providence Park.

"The guys in that locker room, I couldn't be more proud of," said coach Caleb Porter. "I told them, they remind me of why I do this everyday because the amount of fight and heart they showed to get that result, that's not easy. It's very difficult to get a result down a man for 45 minutes."

But perhaps most importantly, the win completed their first big comeback of the long MLS season.

It wasn't long ago that the Timbers seemed to hit bottom: three straight losses (May 7-15) marked the first time they had done so under Porter. The team had problems conceding second-half goals and had yet to record a clean sheet, notable since the Timbers topped the league last year.

Yet Wednesday marked the Timbers' third match in a row unbeaten, fully realizing a boost the team desperately needed in a long MLS season that often has ups and downs. The key for teams in MLS, often, is not staying down too long.

"Lesser teams, they would've crumbled," Porter said. "And here we are three games later, unbeaten with seven points. It doesn't surprise me, because I know the character of these guys and I'll go to war with them everyday."

The Timbers still have work to do – they sit seventh in the Western Conference, a point away from being tied above the red line. But the team believes momentum is on their side.

Portland netted what proved to be the game-winner early, with Liam Ridgewell rising up and smashing in a free kick with his head in the 11th minute. But the tide looked poised to turn when just before halftime, Dairon Asprilla was ejected for an elbow to the head of Jordan Stewart. Porter declined to comment on the red card, saying he needed to see the replay again.

The Timbers held on, down a man for the second half, even as they were out-shot, 14-2, and out-possessed, 57 percent to 43 percent. The Earthquakes landed just three shots on target all night, only one after gaining the player advantage.

The clean sheet comes as the Timbers have suffered a string of injuries along the back line, including to defender Alvas Powell and goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, who remain injured since April and aren't expected to return until for at least a few more weeks. Defender Jermaine Taylor was gone Wednesday on international duty. Taylor Peay earned his first start of the season, with Porter opting to bench usual starter Chris Klute.

"It's a big confidence boost to the group," said Ridgewell, the captain and organizer of the back line. "We're going to need everyone throughout the season, so it's nice to go into the break [for Copa America] knowing everyone can step up to the plate and play well."