The Portland Timbers rode the luck and skill of masked man Troy Perkins Tuesday night against the Houston Dynamo, stealing out of Texas like bandits in a second consecutive nil-nil draw. The Dynamo will feel hard done by after they dominated the Timbers in goalscoring chances, but they never found the finishing touch as Perkins earned a third clean sheet of the season with another standout performance.
In the first night match played at Houston’s new BBVA Compass Stadium, seven shots on goal were denied by seven stellar saves as the home side were left frustrated by a recently improved Portland backline. Despite a glut of chances, the best of them late on, the Dynamo were left ruing their luck after their hard work was matched by a resolute Timbers defense.
Portland came into the match looking to neutralize Houston’s attack in the early stages, and the game plan worked to perfection as very few opportunities developed, the Dynamo not getting a clear shot on goal in the first half. Portland tried to test Houston netminder Tally Hall early, first Lovel Palmer from long range in the opening minutes, then Kris Boyd narrowly missing a connection on a well served ball from Rodney Wallace in the 16th minute.
A few minutes later Timbers captain Jack Jewsbury, in his second straight start at right back, leapt over Houston’s Brad Davis to win a header, but landed awkwardly on his hip and would be forced to retire to the bench at intermission after gamely carrying on with the knock. Two minutes after Jewsbury picked himself off the turf, Franck Songo’o cut to the byline and squared a dangerous ball across the six yard box, but Hall intervened before the ball could reach Wallace at the back post, the winger’s offside position ultimately letting the Dynamo off the hook.
As so often happens in football, a chance that goes begging provides opportunity for the opposition, and when Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso whiffed on what looked a simple clearance in the 23rd minute, he was fortunate the official didn’t rule his inadvertent touch a backpass as Perkins gobbled up the loose ball in front of goal with Will Bruin lurking.
A halftime substitution wasn’t in Portland manager John Spencer’s plans, and after leaving Mike Chabala out of the lineup in favor of Steven Smith at left back, the former Houston player again showed his versatility as he entered in place of the injured Jewsbury at right back.
The Timbers started brighter following the interval, a neat exchange of passes between Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, and Songo’o setting Chara off on a dangerous run into space in the 47th minute. Chara picked out Wallace on the left at the top of the eighteen yard box, only for the Costa Rican to take a touch and blast a shot into his defender when Boyd was beckoning for a pass as he stood onside and unmarked in the box. Wallace and Palmer both made follow up efforts on the rebound, but Houston stood firm to deny perhaps Portland’s best chance of the match.
Shortly after Spencer stated the obvious when he spoke to the broadcast booth, saying that the team’s “play up until the final third has been pretty decent, we just need to get that little bit more quality in the final pass.” For someone who has repeated this sort of phrase to the point of it becoming a mantra after each match, it begs the question why he continues to opt for the unimaginative and negative defensive style of Palmer.
For long periods of the match the Jamaican was invisible, which could be seen as an improvement by some after the detrimental displays he’s put on in his last two outings. Already down one option after the forced inclusion of Chabala, Spencer lacked the guile to make a switch in the center of the park, instead making like for like changes when he replaced Wallace with Sal Zizzo at the hour mark, then Eric Alexander for Songo’o in the 69th minute.
Betwixt Spencer’s substitutions his Houston counterpart Dominic Kinnear replaced Bruin with Brian Ching in the 64th minute, and shortly after his insertion the Dynamo opened up the Timbers as Calen Carr nutmegged Palmer to set up Luiz Camargo as he darted into the box. The Brazilian unleashed a vicious shot from close range, but Perkins was there to deny the effort.
Zizzo, in his first appearance in 2012 following recovery from offseason knee surgery, appeared fresh and still in possession of the pace that makes him a potent alternative at the wide positions. That speed beat Davis to the endline in the 68th minute, Zizzo finding the angle to cut a pass back to a wide open Nagbe in the center of the box. The pass looked destined for a one-time finish, but Nagbe’s first touch failed him and his belated strike was blocked by a charging Jermaine Taylor.
From that point forward, Houston mounted a siege on Portland’s goal, Kinnear replacing Macoumba Kandjii with Colin Clark in the 71st minute, followed by Davis’s exit for Alex Dixon in the 74th. Clark tested Perkins in the 78th, but a solid crack from inside the area went straight at the goalkeeper.
The match’s moment of controversy would come in the 82nd minute, a deflected long ball from Houston springing Ching into space for a breakaway with Futty tracking back haphazardly to close him down. Ching’s first touch offered a fortunate bounce for Futty as the ball went off his toe just before he clumsily clattered the Dynamo forward to the ground, which at first glance appeared a straight red for the Gambian.
The official was spot on, however, as he allowed play to go on given that Futty made contact with the ball before the man. Even though the call was the correct one, the home support gave no mercy to the referee. Futty didn’t come out unscathed from the incident, his lunging tackle resulting in a strained hamstring that he’d have to endure for the remainder of the match with substitutions already expired.
The Dynamo didn’t let the non call slow them down, and in the 87th minute they pressed Alexander into a loss of possession, Camargo pouncing on the loose ball to release Carr for a one on one with Perkins, but the veteran stopper came quickly off his line to stonewall what looked a sure goal. Houston continued to press well into injury time, Dixon cracking a shot in the 94th minute that Perkins bobbled before he corralled it away from Dynamo players trying to capitalize on any late mistakes.
The whistle finally blew to let the Timbers breathe, and the visitors walked away with only their second road point of the campaign. The team will take another shutout and the confidence that comes from turning back a tide of home support for a Dynamo club awash in the orange of their new home, but for all the positives of Portland’s defensive aptitude, a fourth straight match without a goal from a Timbers player shows a pattern of ineptitude in offensive execution.
While many decried the same inability to finish by Kenny Cooper last year, the former Timber is now scoring in bunches for New York after already exceeding his goal tally from his season in Portland. The change in fortunes for the striker now appears to be less symptomatic of the striker’s shortcomings, but rather that of the system in which he was deployed.
That same system now sees Boyd as it’s savior, but the Scot suffers from a similar shortage of service. While progress is evident in defensive cohesion, and the attacking flanks and forwards appear poised to perform at a higher level, the breakdown comes in the center of the park.
If the Timbers system is going to succeed, it can’t rely on wing play alone to create chances, as opposing teams know that if they shut down the outside options, Portland doesn’t possess a game changer in the middle to keep them honest. While a trade or new signing isn’t a current option, a look down the sidelines provides ample options to replace the ineffective Palmer, both Kalif Alhassan and Alexander available as more dynamic creators to complement Chara in a midfield partnership.
Portland barely survived the heat and humidity in Houston, a welcome result when compared to last year’s dismal results against the Dynamo. Portland will need more than survival instincts in their Sunday home match against the Chicago Fire, should they fail to score and win, the temperature at the Fortress of Thorns will surely rise to unprecedented levels.