The Portland Timbers played their final exhibition match of the season Tuesday night, gifting a 5-4 penalty kick win in a friendly matchup to English Premier League side Aston Villa.
Fighting back from a first half deficit, Portland scored two equalizers either side of the visitors second goal to end drawn 2-2 at full time, but the tradition of a penalty kick shootout in friendlies somewhat dampened the mood of what was Portland’s most positive recent result.
After Troy Perkins tipped over a blast from Barry Bannan, the Scot’s delivery on the ensuing corner met Kieran Clark’s head to put the Rose City’s guests in front in the 41st minute. Captain Jack Jewsbury was culpable on the play, losing Clark in the buildup as the Irishman powered home to open the scoring.
Sebastian Rincon scored his debut goal for the hosts in the 76th minute, Franck Songo’o's pinpoint corner glancing off the head of Ryan Kawulok, whose expert redirection beat Brad Guzan and sat up on the line for Rincon to tap in.
The leadup to Villa’s second was similar to their first, the Timbers somehow delaying the inevitable as an absolute sitter from Charles N’Zogbia deflected wide for a corner. Caught up in the fervor of Rincon’s tying goal, the Timbers were caught napping as Bright Dike missed his mark at the far post as the cross came in, Nathan Baker heading back across to find Matthew Lowton, who beat Mike Chabala and Joe Bendik with a headed finish in the 80th minute.
Wasting no time in the wake of Villa’s goal, Rodney Wallace then battled through some precarious touches to send in a looping effort, the Tico’s shot taking a fortunate deflection to arc over Guzan in the 81st minute to level matters in regular time. That would end the Timbers luck, however, as Guzan saved Dike’s attempt, Villa’s Samir Carruthers taking full advantage to beat Bendik to prevail on the fifth and final kick.
Despite the defeat, the atmosphere was lighter than the doom and gloom of the past few weeks, perhaps due to the shared history held by the two clubs, with many of the original NASL Timbers players and coaches hailing from the industrial heart of Great Britain.
Following that initial international exchange in 1975, Villa went on to win their seventh first division league championship in 1981 to match their previous haul of seven FA Cups, followed by a European Cup triumph over Germany’s Bayern Munich in 1982, with their most recent silverware coming by way of a League Cup victory in 1996.
A 137 year history allows for plenty of time to stock one’s trophy cabinet, yet Villa fans today are pining for a return to winning ways after narrowly escaping relegation this past spring. As the prestige of Villa has waned in recent years, the pedigree of the EPL means the club can still attract a caliber of player that the Timbers can only attain in piecemeal fashion via limited MLS Designated Player allocations.
That disparity in quality is readily apparent when comparing the rosters, Kris Boyd the rare recognizable name to anyone across the pond. Prior to the Scottish international’s arrival during preseason, the likes of Villa’s Stephen Ireland, N’Zogbia, and Guzan were more household names to soccer aficionados in Portland.
Although the absences of Darren Bent, Richard Dunne, Shay Given, and Gabriel Agbonlahor lessened Villa’s star power, one wonders how timely their injuries were given that the match at JELD-WEN Field was the only one on Villa’s stateside tour not played on natural grass.
Some of that dearth of celebrity player attraction was alleviated with the presence of actor Tom Hanks and Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler in attendance, the two Villa supporters enjoying a night where they could indulge their passion at the home of the equally fervent Timbers Army.
In the midst of an atrocious spell where Portland lost 5 of their last 6 league matches, conceding 18 goals and only scoring 5 in response, the Timbers were in dire need of a positive result, even if it meant nothing in the standings. The challenge of playing a team from a top European league offered a chance at temporary redemption following such poor recent outings.
While it wasn’t Villa’s first choice team, the level of skill on display provided a test for Portland’s roster, Gavin Wilkinson letting many of his youngsters show their ability, Rincon and Wallace making the most of their opportunity. Freddie Braun looked solid alongside Songo’o in the center of the park, while Kawulok appeared an able option at right back.
Speaking to numerous supporters during a walkabout around the Fortress of Thorns, the general consensus was that the hunger shown by the reserve team players was encouraging in light of all the despair before and after John Spencer’s dismissal. Most are still perplexed at what exactly the philosophical differences were that led to the Scot’s managerial demise, particularly given that Wilkinson didn’t invoke much change from the old system in his three competitive matches at the helm.
The sentiment in the stands was palpable that Spencer’s departure was premature, but in the context that there appears no plan in place to mend the ideological schism between owner’s box and the sidelines. None intimated that a Spencer led squad might have fared much better than under Wilkinson’s guidance, but remained puzzled as to what direction the club is headed with a temporary manager not giving any indication as to whether or not to expect 2013 to be a rebuilding year.
The Kiwi’s most significant changes to date came in the 5-0 thrashing at FC Dallas, a switch from a 4-2-3-1 to a more traditional 4-4-2 backfiring as the side looked uninspired and labelled quitters in the aftermath. Some of Wilkinson’s personnel changes seemed positive during pregame in Texas, only for the misfortunes of an early chance off the post and then an own goal taking the team off course before it could impose itself on the match.
Still only a friendly, the Villa match provided evidence that the young players are capable, and with the playoffs only a pipe dream it’s a perfect time for some fresh blood to inject a listless lineup with new life.
Dallas was most definitely a debacle, but a return to the comforts of home in the next two matches offer a chance to resume winning ways and bring along more fervid fringe players in the process.