PORTLAND, Ore. – Before Providence Park melted into sweet, sweet ecstasy after the Portland Timbers' drama-filled penalty-kick shootout victory Thursday night over Sporting Kansas City in the Knockout Round of the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs, Caleb Porter had a choice to make.
His erstwhile defensive midfielder Diego Chara, who had successfully manned a lone defensive midfielder role in two of the Timbers’ three straight wins to close out the regular season, was unavailable due to an injury he picked up in the season finale against the Colorado Rapids.
And the Timbers head coach could either replace him straight up with veteran Jack Jewsbury to keep the 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 formation change that has awoken a previously dormant attack.
Or Porter could field Jewsbury alongside second-year pro George Fochive, a frequent DM pairing this season in the 4-2-3-1 formation Portland have used most of the year.
Porter trusted in the 34-year-old legs of Jewsbury.
“I’m sure a lot of people, when they saw Jack as the holding mid and two attacking mids, thought, 'Is that going to be too light?'” Porter said. “And I had full faith in Jack to be able to do the job.”
Porter said his decision had everything to do with sticking with what has worked in their late-season offensive surge that saw them score 10 goals in their last three games of the regular season – and now 12 in their last four, following the 2-2 draw with Sporting after regulation and extra time. It allows dynamic midfielder Darlington Nagbe to play centrally with Diego Valeri and adds a fifth attacker to the mix.
“Chara has been fantastic in there the last three or four weeks; he’s been playing in there on his own and he’s been great, and Jack really stepped up tonight and stepped into his boots,” center back Liam Ridgewell said. “They’re different types of players, and Jack did really well.”
Jewsbury did indeed play well, pushing the Timbers to the doorstep of advancing with a 1-0 win after a second-half goal by Rodney Wallace before late heroics by both teams sent the game to a shootout. He did sky a penalty well over the bar in the shootout, but was let off by goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, who buried his spot kick and saved SKC 'keeper Jon Kempin's to push Portland on after 11 rounds.
The Timbers were clearly the aggressors early, outshooting Sporting 8-2 at halftime and 15-9 for the game. With Chara still uncertain for the first leg of Portland’s Western Conference semifinal matchup with the Vancouver Whitecaps, Porter said he now has confidence the new system still works without him.
“I think it was the right decision to start the way we did,” Porter said, also noting that Fochive came in late for a more defensive presence with the lead. “I think that Jack, his intelligence, his experience, his positional sense, I mean, we were on the front foot in the first half and start of second half and had some outstanding sequences and passage of play and chances. Right now this system is working.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.