Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers
By MIKE DONOVAN
PORTLAND, Ore. – In 2013, the Portland Timbers started the season with two home matches, falling behind in both and leaving a bitter taste in the players’ mouths. The 2014 season has seemed to start very similar for the Rose City.
Despite being able to squander two draws, unlike last year when they lost their second match, the Timbers know they must find a way to start games stronger.
“In the past few games, the start hasn’t been good enough,” Jack Jewsbury said. “And that was made very clear at halftime (and) after the game.”
While the Timbers had a possession advantage for the entire game against the Fire, it was Chicago who had the best goal-scoring opportunities in the first half. Quincy Amarikwa drew a penalty kick, while Alex forced Donovan Ricketts into a diving save.
“I think, overall, for whatever reason, we were a bit lethargic,” Caleb Porter said. “In that first half, I thought we could have been a little bit hungrier, just ball-winning and getting in tackles.”
Porter and his players seemed to have a sense of urgency in the second half and eventually found a goal. However, they realize that successful teams can’t fall behind in every match.
“We need to play with that urgency in the beginning to get that first goal,” captain Will Johnson said. “Because when you get that first goal, often times, you don’t lose games.”
GASTON FERNANDEZ’S QUICK START
Two games into the season and the offseason signing of Gaston Fernandez has already paid dividends for the Timbers. Fernandez has not only scored the only two goals of the season for the club, but has also provided a versatile player who has already played a variety of roles for Caleb Porter.
“He’s a very clever player, he knows how to get out of tight spaces. His movement is very good, he’s a smart player,” Porter said. “Anywhere you use him he’s gonna pop up, he’s going to read defenses, he’s going to find gaps and seams.”
Fernandez has started both matches as the outside attacking midfielder and has also played both centrally as an attacking mid and as the center striker. In fact, despite his diminutive five-foot-seven-inch frame, the Argentine seems as comfortable as the No. 9 as he is as a attacking midfielder. Both of Fernandez’s goals have come after finding open space near the goalmouth.
“Even though he’s not big, he gets on the end of crosses, actually… You don’t have to be big to score off crosses,” Porter said. “You just have to do it with movement and get in good spots and he’s shown that at times as well.”
With his goals, Fernandez became the first MLS Timber to score in the first two matches of a season for the club and just the fourth Timber overall since the club’s inaugural season in 1975.
Last season, the Timbers fielded a new Argentine playmaker in Diego Valeri and all he did was have one of the best first seasons by a newcomer in the league’s history. While two goals in two games does not guarantee a successful season, it certainly seems like a good indicator that Fernandez might come close to following in Valeri’s footsteps.
“He’s just been here in this country a couple months. It takes guys a lot of times, a year or two to settle in and get comfortable in this league,” Porter said. “I thought for large parts of the game he took the game over and he was one of the best players on the field.”
RUN-OF-PLAY DEFENSE REMAINS STOUT
Despite conceding a goal in each of their first two matches, the Timbers defense can hang their hat on the fact that the club hasn’t given up a goal in the run-of-play this season. In fact, it has been 461 minutes since the last time Portland has given up a goal in the run-of-play in a regular season match and that was Camilo’s 2013 MLS Goal of the Year.
“I think it’s because we defend as a team. I think the natural thing is to credit the backs and the goalkeeper for that and they are a part of that, for sure,” Porter said. “But I think it’s the defending as a team, collective defending is the reason why we don’t give up many goals.”
One other reason Porter points to is the fact that his team constantly in possession. Portland out-possessed the Fire by almost a 2-to-1 ratio.
“So that’s another reason why you don’t give up goals in the run-of-play,” Porter said. “These are all reasons why I like the philosophy that we play.”