PORTLAND, Ore. – The Portland Timbers got their captain back and returned to the win column in the process with a 1-0 victory over league leaders D.C. United at Providence Park Wednesday night.
Led by midfielder Will Johnson, in the starting lineup for his first appearance back from a broken leg suffered in late September last year, the Timbers made a fifth-minute Maximiliano Urruti goal stand up against a shorthanded D.C. side.
The win for the Timbers, who came into the match with the league’s second-lowest points-per-game average and at the bottom of the Western Conference, was most welcome, ending their first two-game losing streak of the season and bumping them over the Colorado Rapids and into a tie with the Houston Dynamo for eighth place in the table with 16 points from 13 games.
Front-running United, meanwhile, find themselves in a bit of a swoon, now winless in their last three with two losses in that stretch. They still lead the Eastern Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings with 22 points from 13 games.
Portland started the match like a side with something to prove, rotating reserve forwards Gaston Fernandez, Dairon Asprilla, Urruti and center back Norberto Paparatto into the lineup, with the game falling in the middle of a three-matches-in-a-week span – and it didn’t take long for it to pay off.
In the fifth minute, Fernandez ran onto a loose ball on the right flank and played a perfect low cross into the run of an onrushing Urruti for an easy finish at the far post.
And the Timbers probably counted themselves unlucky not to have found the net again with a number of good chances in the first half, the best when midfielder Diego Chara unlocked Urruti with a perfect through ball in the 10th minute. D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid, however, charged way off his line to break up the one-on-one chance just in time.
D.C. made the cross-country trip for their third game in 10 days, with Wednesday’s game sandwiched by East Coast matches at New England and at home to Philadelphia. Without a number of their first-choice players and just a 16-man gameday roster, they employed a sit-and-counter strategy in the first half.
Their best chance came on a corner kick in the 31st minute when Steve Birnbaum was left unmarked at the far post, but his header was directed into the side netting.
It was Portland’s first halftime lead since Week 2 against the LA Galaxy, which ended in a 2-2 draw.
D.C. applied more pressure to start the half, resulting in a Birnbaum shot that flew straight to Timbers ‘keeper Adam Kwarasey in the 47th minute and a Conor Doyle shot that was pushed just wide three minutes later.
But Portland tightened the screws soon thereafter, and nearly got a second on a number of chances.
In the 68th minute, Darlington Nagbe played Asprilla in on the right wing, but Hamid was there again. Two minutes later, Nagbe played in second-half substitute Rodney Wallace on the left, but his shot attempt was deflected just wide and out for a corner.
Asprilla found another shot in the 71st minute in the middle of the box, but Hamid cleaned it up with a diving save.
In the end, Portland’s defense was forced to grind out the victory, holding D.C. to 12 shots for the game.
The Timbers hit the road for their next match, Saturday against the Colorado Rapids. D.C. return home to play host to the Philadelphia Union on the same day.
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.