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Will Johnson’s winning free kick and takeaways from Portland’s win over San Jose

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[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHMV-zPqccc]

PORTLAND, Ore. — The goal above was all the Portland Timbers needed for their second straight win, but there was a lot exposition that came before Will Johnson’s game-winner. With the exception of a small stretch in the middle of the first half, Portland dominated play, racking up 64 percent possession and a 427-185 edge in completed passes. They also forced eight second half fouls, with Ramiro Corrales’s 77th minute takedown of Kalif Alhassan setting Johnson up for his third goal of the season.

It’s the worst spot on the field to give up a free kick. Just beyond the arc is far enough out to allow a player to get a ball up and over the wall. If he can do that, he’ll gets either side of goal to choose from, and if he’s not capable of hitting both sides, a team can put a right- and left-footer over the ball, making it even more problematic for a goalkeeper to place a helpful wall.

source: Getty ImagesWill Johnson (right) isn’t Portland’s normal free kick taker, but with Diego Valeri out, Caleb Porter had a feeling his captain would deliver. “Why don’t you smack a free kick goal today,” Porter texted his captain before Sunday’s game. The extra free kick practice Johnson put in mid-week paid off.

Burying his curler into the left side of Jon Busch’s net, Johnson vaulted his team to third in the Western Conference, Portland collecting the second win of the Caleb Porter era. Along the way, the Timbers continued to quell concerns the defense may not be able to support Porter’s ambitious attack, the Timbers keeping their second straight clean sheet.

Here are the takeaways from Major League Soccer’s weekend finale:

Two straight shutouts for Portland – David Horst is out long-term, and Andrew Jean Baptiste’s abductor injury didn’t improve in time to take his place. That meant Mamadou “Futty” Danso, a long-time Timber who hadn’t started since last October’s trip to Seattle. Picking him over rookie Dylan Tucker-Gagnes, Porter made the right call. A matter match for San Jose’s physical forwards, Danso turned out to be the game’s best defender.

The performance led to Portland’s second straight shutout, and although the results have been at home, the clean sheets have come against two of the league’s better teams. San Jose won last year’s Supporters’ Shield, Houston made the MLS Cup final, but neither was able to score in Portland.

Wondolowski out wide? That didn’t work – “The first thing I thought was I’d rather have Wondo wide than up top,” Porter said, asked to describe his reaction to Frank Yallop’s starting XI. For the first time this season, both Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon were in the team, but rather than change formation, he sent Chris Wondolowski  right to fill in for the injured Shea Salinas. Despite the mismatch with personnel, Yallop stuck to his base 4-4-2.

The result was a quiet night for the league’s reigning MVP. With the exception of a late header hit right at Donovan Ricketts, Wondo’s most noteworthy actions were the times he came inside to pressure Will Johnson or Mikael Silvestre, defending that ultimately left him chasing left back Michael Harrington up the flank.

“What we tried to do out wide is really make him defend,” Porter explained. “The more that Harrington got forward, the more it pulled him away from goal.”

Wondolowski finished the match with more fouls committed (two) than shots on goal (one).

Combative San Jose – They like to be the “alpha dogs.” That’s how Will Johnson termed it after the match. San Jose’s response to Portland’s possession and movement was to try and rough them up, with Diego Chara, Danso, Darlington Nagbe, Ryan Johnson, and Mikael Silvestre all spending time on the ground.

“I don’t fault them for that,” Porter said of San Jose’s aggression. “They want to win. But we have no problem with it. We’ll fight too.”

“One of the things I told the guys: We need to outfight them, but we need to out football them, too.”

In a way, it was a complement to Portland. San Jose’s not afraid to play a physical style. The Timbers forced them to push the envelope.

Oh, Alan Gordon – One Quake that pushed the envelope too far, Alan Gordon finished a short night with an ignominious hat trick. His feet-first slide through Chara in the 41st minute sent the Colombia writhing, drawing a yellow card. In the 69th minute, Gordon swung his arm while leaping into an aerial challenge, caught Silvestre in the face, and earned a second yellow.

And that wasn’t the worst of it. In the second half, television cameras appeared to catch Gordon mouthing the same homophobic slur that earned Marc Burch a three-game suspension during last year’s postseason. Just as like in November, the slur was directed at Will Johnson, who was with Real Salt Lake during last year’s postseason.

Johnson declined to comment on or confirm what Gordon said. A representative from the Earthquakes said the team would release a statement addressing the incident.

MORE: Alan Gordon apologizes: “that language has no place in our game”

Two Ryan Johnson goals give Timbers first win of Caleb Porter era

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PORTLAND, Ore. — One week after their worst performance of the season, Portland broke through for the first win of the Caleb Porter era, getting two second half goals from Ryan Johnson to hand the visiting Houston Dynamo a 2-0 loss.

In the process, Portland showed a threat they never had to exhibit to show through Porter’s first four games. When Johnson redirected a 55th cross from Diego Chara past Tally Hall, the Timbers had their first lead of the season, surprising given the team came into Saturday’s match with seven goals. Once they were ahead, the Timbers were able to take advantage of a side chasing the game, eventually countering their way to a two-goal lead.

It was that sparked the effort out of halftime, a turnover of his making creating a gilt-edged chance for Darlington Nagbe early in the half. Moments later, Chara’s run behind Corey Ashe set up the opening goal. Rodney Wallace then blasted a 20-yard shot off the crossbar and right post before Portland finally bought their insurance.

In the 73rd minute, Nagbe forced a turnover just inside Portland half before getting a return ball from Kalif Alhassan. Laying off into the left of Houston’s area, Nagbe set up Johnson for the game’s final goal.

It was a deserved result for a team that dominated after an even first half. Houston withstood an initial Timber push that opened to game to control the heart of the opening period. Though the Timbers had the better of play before half time, the teams went into intermission goalless in what looked destined to devolve into a war of attrition.

Portland had lost David Horst to a knee injury after 18 minutes. At the 29-minute mark, Diego Valeri left with what appeared to be concussion-like symptoms. For Houston, Giles Barnes picked up a knock through a Mikael Silvestre challenge before halftime, while Corey Ashe appeared to hurt his ankle in the second half.

It was in that second half that Porter turned the match. After Valeri left, Porter initially persisted with a 4-2-3-1 formation that used Nagbe in the playmaker’s role. But the young attacker appeared lost, unable to establish the fluidity Valeri promotes. In the second half, Porter moved Nagbe into a more natural supporting striker’s role, shifting his formation to a 4-4-2.

The move created space behind the forwards, an area Chara dominated from the onset of the second. Jumping from deep midfield to win balls coming out of Houston’s end, Chara transformed Portland’s attack from reliant on traditional buildup to menacing through counters. His run behind Ashe created the first goal in the 55th minute, while another Portland counter put the match away in the 73rd.

For Houston, the match had to feel like a typical, everything against us road game – the type of circumstance that happens two or three times over the course of the season. They were without Will Bruin, and in the days before the match, Boniek Garcia was also ruled out. Under a persistent Portland rain shower, Jeld-Wen’s FieldTurf was slicker than BBVA Compass Stadium’s could ever play. Even the first goal held hints of bad luck, hitting off a sprawling Tally Hall before eventually dropping over the line.

But that point of view overlooks a Timber performance that finally lived up to the hype. The Timbers held 62 percent of the match’s possession and put six shots on goal to Houston’s two. The second half was basically one-way traffic.

It was the breakthrough the Timbers had hoped for last week in Colorado, but with the team finally in the win column, Portland’s first month’s struggles will gain a new perspective. They’ve got their first win under Porter.

Major League Soccer team previews: PORTLAND TIMBERS

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Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. First kick is March 2.

No. 5 in the West are the Portland Timbers:

Significant additions and subtractions: It starts with the new head coach, former University of Akron boss Caleb Porter. Some know him for building a collegiate powerhouse in Ohio. Others will remember him from the U.S.’s failed attempt to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Regardless, the 38-year-old has already made over the club. The team’s play is completely transformed from last season.

Part of that makeover is a slew of significant additions, moves that have brought in the likes of Will Johnson, Ryan Johnson, Ryan Miller, Micheal Harrington, and Ben Zemanski. Attacking midfielder Diego Valeri has lured from Argentina to be the focal point of the attack. Former Manchester United and Arsenal defender Mikael Silvestre now tops the Timbers’ center back depth chart. In all likelihood, only three players who started against Philadelphia to open the 2012 campaign will be in Porter’s starting XI on March 3.

Encouragingly for Portland, there aren’t many significant losses. The most newsworthy: Kris Boyd had his seven-figure deal were bought out in January. The rest of the losses (Frank Songo’o, Eric Alexander) were players who’d have trouble making Porter’s bench.

Strengths: Here’s the rub with Portland: When you go position-by-position, it’s difficult to see anywhere on the field where they have significantly above average talent. It’s up to Porter to take fuse talent with style and create a sum that’s greater than its parts.

So Portland’s advantages will have to be philosophical. They’ll have to be tactical, and they’ll have to be ideological. The team has to transcend their talent.

The players are being tasked with mastering an approach their coach believes will win games. If they respond, the team’s strengths will be their passing, the resulting possessing game, and the movement that enables it.

With Ryan Johnson and Darlington Nagbe, that could lead to goals, but until the games count, it’s just a big, entertaining hypothesis.

Pressure points: Portland had one of the worst defenses in the league last season. This year, it could be worse. David Horst and Hayner Mosquera, last year’s starters in central defense, are injured to start the season. Mikael Silvestre is a 35-year-old dice roll, while Donovan Ricketts has fallen off sharply from the form that led the LA Galaxy to an MLS Cup in 2011.

More concerning than the talent is the style. Porter’s approach is leaving his center halves isolated, exposing his team to counterattacks. In their final preseason game, Portland saw Sweden’s AIK have success playing quick and long directly at the Timbers’ defenders, an approach that led to a number of chances.

For Portland, it was a worrying scouting report to give the opposition eight days before their opener.

source: Getty ImagesDifference maker: As owner Merritt Paulson noted, Portland essentially chose Valeri (right) over Mix Diskerud. So far this preseason, you can see why. The former Lanus attacker has the talent to be one of the better creative presences in the league. If that talent shines through in the regular season, Valeri will not only have justified his Designated Player price but vindicated his club’s decision to pass on Diskerud.

Potential breakout player: Again, it’s Darlington Nagbe. He has elite talent, but he’s yet to produce elite numbers. With the acquisition of Valeri, Nagbe’s free to pursue more goals. If Porter’s team clicks, his assist numbers should see a drastic increase, too.

Bottom line: The players they’ve brought in represent a drastic improvement over last year’s squad, and thus far in preseason, Portland’s attack has reflected this. If their defense comes around, the Timbers could challenge the West’s big four. Otherwise, they’ll fight for fifth and could finish as low as seventh. It all comes down to whether Portland’s center halves can keep up.

(MORE: the entire roster of ProSoccerTalk’s Major League Soccer previews and predictions)

It may only be preseason, but Portland, Porter right to be confident

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Had the score reflected the unbalanced play, people outside of Portland may have taken notice: The Caleb Porter Project is starting to yield early returns for the Timbers. True, his defense was mistake-prone and made what should have been a comfortable victory into what appears to be a shootout, but for 90 minutes against the Supporters’ Shield holders, Porter’s product was as advertised. His team passed, pressed, ran and rocked the visiting Earthquakes onto their heels, leaving 14,229 at Jeld-Wen Field with a performance that transcended the result.

“In the end I think we proved to ourselves and each other that we’re capable of beating anybody in Major League Soccer,” was Porter’s bold assessment after the 3-3 result, a game highlighted by a hat trick by new Timber Ryan Johnson. It also featured three defensive mistakes which allowed San Jose to earn a draw.

“There were some moments in the game that we need to address,” Porter conceded. “The nice thing is that those are things that are easily addressable.”

The first goal, three minutes in, came after a ball-to-hand in the box. Chris Wondolowski buried the opener from the spot. A midfield foul and a converted set piece allowed Victor Bernardez to score San Jose’s second, while chaos in the penalty area let former Timber Mike Fucito give the Earthquakes a late equalizer.

The goals weren’t enough to cloud Porter’s standout Jeld-Wen debut, one that allowed his team to show the stylistic revolution anticipated from the former Akron boss is more than some hyperbolic fable. Returning from their four-game stretch in Arizona, the difference between Porter’s teams and the style of former coach John Spencer’s was drastic. The Timbers dominated possession, relied on short passing that capitalized on constant off-the-ball movement, and were steadily throwing players at the defense.

The first goal, two minutes after San Jose’s opener, illustrated the approach. San Jose left back Justin Morrow had been drawn in, leaving Portland fullback Ryan Miller — advanced to play along San Jose’s line — space to receive and play a pass toward the byline. Kalif Alhassen ran through the channel and onto the ball, providing a perfect near-post cross to Ryan Johnson. The Jamaican international’s looping header pulled Portland even.

Portland opened up San Jose’s midfield for the second, Diego Valeri given too much time to threat a ball behind Bernardez for Ryan Johnson, while the third saw Johnson chip Jon Busch to complete a Portland counter.

(MORE: Ryan Johnson hits for three in Jeld-Wen debut – HIGHLIGHTS)

It may have just a preseason game, but San Jose started seven regulars. Portland started nine players who are likely parts of Porter’s First Kick XI, but their setup was slightly different than the one we’re likely see against New York on March 3. The relatively flat midfield in Sunday’s setup should give away to a midfield diamond, with newly acquired Ben Zemanski playing at its base.

But with time running out on the preseason, it’s time to start drawing some conclusions about teams’ preparedness. And in that regard, Portland is far ahead of the game. You can see Valeri will be their playmaker, Johnson their push, and (eventually) Nagbe their poacher. You can see a narrow midfield giving way for fullbacks to provide width and pressure.

You can see the chemistry developing among players learning to read each other’s movements, and you can see players bursting from midfield seeking to exploit the space exposed by their passing game. It’s shocking how much the team is playing to the Caleb Porter hype.

source: Getty ImagesIt’s the type of approach a stylistic homogenous, tactically risk-averse MLS rarely sees. That was evident by San Jose’s reaction. The Earthquakes, playing a standard MLS 4-4-2, saw their midfield flattened and rooted by the Timbers’ movement, with the home side habitually breaking down the Earthquakes’ left flank. Even after Frank Yallop switched loanee John Bostock with starting right midfielder Shea Salinas, San Jose couldn’t stop right back Ryan Miller and right midfielder Kalif Alhassan from teaming with forwards Johnson and Diego Valeri (right) to breach that side. The Timbers’ new passing and movement was going to take more than 90 minutes for San Jose to get used to.

“That’s going to be a strength of our team,” Porter said of his side’s style, sentiments that have been echoed since his mid-winter introduction. “We want to be an aggressive team … a proactive team. We want to be on the front foot, and we want teams to have to deal with us. San Jose had to deal with us tonight.”

San Jose couldn’t say the same of Portland. For most of the night they were without the ball and forced to rely on transition for opportunities. Yet with three goals that came decidedly against the run of play, the Earthquakes highlighted why Portland’s 2012 defense ranked 17th in Major League Soccer. Giveaways, soft fouls, and lapses in focus — all correctable offenses — kept the Timbers from victory.

“It’s easier to clean up the defensive side,” Porter said of his team’s progress. “It’s easier to sort out a giveaway that can’t happen. It’s easier to sort out getting your back four tightened up. It’s easier to sort out marking a guy on a set piece. Those things will be sorted out …”

Even if the defense stays problematic, Sunday’s game represented a huge step forward for the Timbers. Not only do they seem better than last year, but their style of soccer is much improved. That entertainment value is something owner Merritt Paulson has stressed since the Timbers entered Major League Soccer. Even if Portland can’t challenge for a playoff spot, a new, more ambitious tactical approach will be a reprieve for Timbers’ fans.

source: Getty Images“I was pleased because there were moments where we showed Portland Timbers football and our identity and what it’s going to be,” Porter said. “We also showed we’re adjustable as well, and we do what we need to win games.

“That’s a mark of a good team in MLS. You know who you are but you also can adjust and be flexible at times if you need to.

This all assumes the team that showed up on Sunday is for real. It could have just been a good night against a team that’s not as far along in their preseason preparation. Until Portland can transfer this production onto a regular season game, the revolution’s yet to start.

Ultimately, it was just an exhibition, though it was one that will inspire a lot of conviction.

“[San Jose] was the best team in the regular season last year. We went toe-to-toe with this team, and in the end, I thought we were the aggressor looking to win.

“If we would have cleaned up a few mistakes, the game would have been ours. So we take a lot of belief and confidence from this game. “

Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: Portland Timbers

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

Portland failed in 2012, and they know it. From the moment owner Merritt Paulson fired coach John Spencer, he set about making it clear to fans: Last season – a year in which he’d asked for a playoff appearance – was not acceptable. While Portland was only four points out of a playoff spot at the time of Spencer’s departure, the Timbers spent the rest of the season near the bottom of the west preparing for the arrival of Caleb Porter.

Change is already evident in Portland. There’s no air of disappointment lingering from last season. Instead, a new coach and an entirely different approach has restored the optimism. They may not be saying it out loud, but for the second year in a row, the Timbers plan to compete for the postseason.

Here are three (of many) questions they’ll need to answer this winter if they’re going to make waves:

  • Can Porter adapt?

On Tuesday, former Zip Darlington Nagbe was asked if he was having flashbacks to college training. Surprisingly, he said no. All of the drills Portland’s done this week are brand new to the somebody who played under Porter at Akron.

So Porter’s already adjusting. Whether that translates to wins is all that matters, something we won’t know until (at least) March, even if early returns are encouraging. The Timbers are training like a team ready to play to the strengths of Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Will Johnson, and Diego Chara. That fit may ultimately be the magic that justifies Porter’s hype.

  • Is Diego Valeri worth the label?

We’ve seen a lot of Designated Players come and go, most of which haven’t met the expectations that come with the label. We should adjust our views on the high-priced talents, but still, when you hear a team is bringing in a new designated player, you rightfully assume they think very highly of him.

And so we have Portland’s Argentinine import Diego Valeri, a loanee from Lanus brought in to orchestrate the attack. Even on the nights he can’t generate goals, he’s doing to be tasked with managing a possession-based passing game that should take pressure off the defense.

As with Porter, early returns are encouraging, but on an expensive loan deal (and with little pedigree outside of Argentina to recommend him one way or another), fans would be right to reserve judgment. In case you missed it, the last DP didn’t work out so well.

  • Can Darlington Nagbe reach his potential?

We don’t even know where he’ll play, so it’s hard to predict what he’ll do in 2013, but with the acquisition of Valeri, Nagbe looks set to assume a more goal-scoring role. He started in one last season when John Spencer paired him with Kris Boyd up top in a 4-4-2, but when Gavin Wilkinson took over and switched to a 4-3-3, Nagbe had to orchestrate the transition.

While he’s capable of doing that, Nagbe is the Timbers’ best goal scorer. His skill and instincts in the penalty area (along with the acquisition of Valeri) suggest he should be moved back forward. Given the paucity of scoring threats on Portland’s rost, the move’s almost necessary if the Timbers are going to score enough goals.

If the chance produces a much-needed double-digit goal scorer, Portland will have solved their biggest problem.

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: Real Salt Lake