Old guard, new plan: With veterans in place, Portland Timbers scrap for their 1-0 win

PORTLAND, Ore. – Though it will be Diego Valeri’s touch of class on the only goal of the Portland Timbers’ 1-0 victory Friday night over the Colorado Rapids that will be most remembered, it was the gritty, yeoman-like defensive performance from their veteran back line that the team was in the mood to celebrate.

With club captain Jack Jewsbury and veteran center back Mamadou “Futty” Danso back in the lineup, Portland fielded a back four that has a combined 646 games of MLS experience. And it showed in a scrappy, sometimes disjointed game that was just what one would expect out of a late-season battle between playoff contenders.

“Especially in the back, we went with some of our old guards with Futty and Jack,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said. “These guys have been professionals for quite some time. They have some experience to them, some maturity to them, they’re comfortable in a Timbers uniform. I thought those two guys, along with the other two backs and [goalkeeper Donovan] Ricketts, really showed very well tonight.”

Events couldn’t have unfolded better for the Timbers, who came in on somewhat of a slide after winning just once in their last five games to fall into the fifth and final Western Conference playoff spot.

They scored on a 13th-minute chip by Valeri to get the quick start Porter had demanded of them after conceding the first goal in three of their last four games -- resulting in two losses and a tie. Then Portland went away from their high-pressure style and bunkered in somewhat.

And the Timbers took some shots from Colorado as they pushed to maintain their third-place position.

“During this time of year experience does help to a certain extent,” said Jewsbury, who missed five of the last six games with a sprained ankle. “We’ve been pretty solid for the most part in our final four, we just wanted to tighten it up a little more. We knew today was going to be a fairly direct game and a battle for first and second balls.”

Even their goal came off high pressure when newly acquired striker Maximiliano Urruti forced a bad clearance by veteran Colorado defender Drew Moor, which was deflected by Timbers forward Rodney Wallace straight to Valeri.

“At this point in the season it’s not always about playing the prettiest and creating 20 chances like we did early in the year,” Jewsbury said. “It’s going to be about creating three of four good chances and capitalizing on that, and I thought we did that tonight.”

Danso started in place of the second-year pro Andrew Jean-Baptiste, whose string of 13 consecutive starts came to an end after a shaky performance last week in Portland’s 1-1 draw against Chivas USA. Danso, who had missed the last nine games with a broken foot, slotted in next to Pa Modou Kah, a former Norwegian international and a veteran of the top-flight Scandinavian leagues. Seven-year veteran Michael Harrington started in his usual left-back position.

“I think when you have a lot of experience, not only on the back line but on the team itself, it helps a lot,” Danso said. “Jack has been around the league. Pa is one of the greatest leaders I’ve played with. … So they help a lot. Jack is a tremendous player, a true leader.”

So while Colorado controlled possession and outshot the Timbers 13-9, only one of their shots was on target. Porter said he was very impressed with the way his side controlled the second half, managing their lead by not taking too many chances and not allowing the Rapids to get good looks at the goal.

“They didn’t have very many clear looks, and I thought a big part of that was the ability of our backs, especially in box defending, the ability to win second ball, the ability to track guys,” Porter said. “These are all things that, again, three or four games ago we couldn’t make those plays.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.

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