By MIKE DONOVAN
PORTLAND, Ore.- Heading into the month of September, the Portland Timbers found themselves fighting for their playoff lives. For the first time in 2013, the club was coming off consecutive losses with the second being a 4-2 defeat at Real Salt Lake that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
But August seems like a season ago as the Timbers tallied three wins and a draw in September, which leaves the club just two points behind co-conference leaders, RSL and Seattle. The latest victory came Sunday with a 1-0 win over the LA Galaxy. While the beginning of September the focus was to solidify their playoff chances, the club has seemed to move onto a bigger goal.
“Our goal is to not just limp into the playoffs, but to get in a good position, hopefully in the top three, and to avoid the play-in game,” Porter said.
September was the fourth time this season that the Timbers went a full calendar month without a loss, joining April, May, and June. However, September’s matches took on more meaning with the end of the regular season just around the corner. Victories over fellow playoff contenders Colorado and LA have also reinvigorated a side after a tough August.
“It was a big step for this club, just moving forward to continue to show that we can beat anybody,” Porter said.
The undefeated September puts the Timbers with 49 points, which places them in third-place in the Western Conference and five points clear of the sixth-place San Jose Earthquakes, who have played one more match than the Timbers. Portland will have to battle to continue its positive form with its next three matches being against Vancouver, Seattle, and RSL, before finishing the season with Chivas USA.
Portland has been able to get results from its Western Conference foes and has just three losses in 20 matches against Western Conference opponents. If the Timbers are able to continue both their September and conference success, it bodes well for Jeld-Wen Field hosting a MLS playoff game for the first time.
“I think we are in a very good position. We have four more matches,” midfielder Diego Valeri said. “We must think in the top three, and I think we can do it.”
JEWSBURY DELIVERS AGAIN
For the second consecutive match, Jack Jewsbury was in the starting lineup at rightback and, once again, the 11-year veteran helped the Timbers shut out an opponent. This time, Jewsbury came up big defending the speedy rookie Gyasi Zardes and helping his fellow defenders hold Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane to just one combined shot.
“He was going against a world-class athlete in Zardes and he didn’t lose much. It’s just because he’s smart,” Porter said. “He’s an experienced player, he’s a salty dog and he knows how to get it done some way.”
Jewsbury was an all-star in his first season with Portland in 2011 as an attacking midfielder, but these days, the 32-year-old is found on the right side of the Timbers defense. While he occasionally ventures forward to help in the attack, Jewsbury tends to stay back in defense more than his left-sided counterpart, Michael Harrington.
The Saint Louis University product spent his first eight seasons with Kansas City and has found new life under Porter.
“I’ve been around the block a few times,” Jewsbury said. “These coaches and this staff have given all the guys who step on the field the most confidence possible. We realize in these situations we’re going to be fine.”
One reason for the club’s improvement from July and August has been how the club has been able to get some injured players back on the field. Four starters on Sunday (Jewsbury, Will Johnson, Diego Valeri, and Futty Danso) have returned after bouts with injuries in recent weeks.
“The reality is, the only reason we started dropping points is because we weren’t healthy. I never made that excuse, but that was a big factor,” Porter said. “If you look at any team and you chop off their top four or five guys in MLS when you have to build your roster a certain way because of the cap, you’re not going to be the same team.”
Johnson’s return in the central midfield gives the club a MLS all-star, who when combined with Diego Chara, provide two box-to-box midfielders who can control the game through the middle of the field. Danso, meanwhile, is the longest-tenured Timber and has a provided veteran leadership at the back. In Danso’s 1000 minutes of play this season, Portland has conceded just seven goals.
“Here we are now near full strength and I think you’ve seen that in the last four games with three wins and a draw,” Porter said.