After the Portland Timbers’ wild 3-3 draw last weekend against the Columbus Crew – which saw two one-goal comebacks while down a man in the final 10 minutes – Steve Zakuani was one of many players who thought maybe, just maybe, his team had finally turned a corner.
“When you’re playing like that and work as hard as we’re working, your luck starts to change,” Zakuani said.
Because through the first third of the 2014 season, the Timbers have seen just about everything go wrong: more red cards (three) and penalty kicks conceded (five) than they saw all last year, injuries, suspensions and just plain bad luck (league-leading nine shots off the woodwork).
Now, facing a two-game road trip and stretch of three games in eight days starting Saturday against the New York Red Bulls (7 pm ET; MLS Live), the Timbers are hoping that’s all behind them.
“I think there have been a lot of times there’s been a lot of good building blocks to build on and we haven’t taken that next step, so that’s where the frustration starts to set in,” Timbers captain Will Johnson said earlier this week before team departed for New York. “And now we’ve got another platform where we played against a team down a man for a long period of time and performed very well, and now we have a chance to build on that when we get 11 guys back on the field.”
Against the Crew, the Timbers saw positives at both ends of the game.
It’s what happened in between – going a man down after Alvas Powell was shown red for a reckless and ill-advised tackle, giving up a penalty-kick goal and one on a restart, seconds after Johnson scored in the 80th minute, allowing the Crew to go ahead 3-2 – that has them confounded.
It was a snapshot of what has led to Portland’s struggles all season. The Timbers have scored six goals from the 76th minute onward, tied for fourth-most in MLS, but they have allowed eight goals in the same timeframe, which leads MLS.
“I think you just have to build on that second half [against the Crew],” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said. “With what this team has shown they’re capable of doing, I think as a coach you’re always looking for more. … So I don’t think it’s an uncommon thing to want your team to push for longer periods at a level that’s higher than what they’ve shown for 90 minutes.”
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They’ll do it facing a key stretch against the Red Bulls, at Chivas USA on Wednesday and then Sunday against Cascadia rivals Vancouver Whitecaps. A string of results could get Portland right back in the thick of the Western Conference standings, while more struggles could bury them even further.
“Now we have a chance to build momentum quickly,” Johnson said. “We could be right back close to the red line by the end of the week and that’s exciting if we perform well.”
The big question is, how exactly do you bottle the “heart,” as Porter called it, the Timbers showed in the second half against the Crew for a full 90?
“For me, it’s pretty simple,” Porter said with a wry smile, “just talk to the guys and tell them, ‘Just do what you did in the second half.’”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.