The Portland Timbers earned their first road point of the season at FC Dallas, putting the formerly named Burn’s first half lead up in flames after coming back in the second half to level the score. Blas Perez opened the scoring in the 22nd minute, only to see his side’s lead squandered as halftime substitute Darlington Nagbe equalized in the 51st minute.
For both sides, the St. Patrick’s Day summit was sufficiently surmised by a line from an old Irish adage, ‘may the wind be always at your back’. A fierce gale was blowing at kickoff, and the hosts would benefit from the prevailing wind that helped propel them forward in the opening exchanges, with Portland manager John Spencer’s fears of a surprise inclusion in the FCD lineup coming to fruition, albeit in the form of playmaker Ricardo Villar rather than Brek Shea, who stayed away on international duty.
Villar had been instrumental in FCD’s win over New York last week, scoring the eventual match winner, but had limped off shortly after and was doubtful for Saturday’s contest. Carrying an ankle knock and fresh off a preseason concussion, Villar looked lively early, dancing around Portland defenders, at one point sending a backheeled nutmeg through Rodney Wallace’s legs to spring an early foray into the attacking third.
The tackles came thick and fast as Portland’s aggressive defense was evidenced by yellow cards for Wallace and captain Jack Jewsbury in the first thirteen minutes, both earned from late tackles on the match fit Villar, perhaps in retribution for the Brazilian’s elusiveness. Even without Shea or fellow offensive stalwarts David Ferriera and Fabian Castillo to rely on, Villar orchestrated the attack from midfield with some role players in freshly minted wingers Carlos Rodriguez and product Bryan Leyva providing the outlets on the flanks.
While the Timbers struggled to keep their feet as they tried to prevent FCD’s forward advance, the inevitable early goal concession on the road came in a tidy buildup begun by none other than the dangerous Villar. Back to goal, Villar neatly possessed and turned to find a breaking Rodriguez down the left wing, the pass opening up three Portland defenders to allow the Panamanian space to whip in a low cross through the box, where the hesitancy to clear by a flailing Wallace would allow the ball to skip past and fall to the onrushing Leyva at the far post.
The former FC Dallas academy player struck a superb volley, and only the quick reaction save of Troy Perkins would deny Leyva’s effort from finding the net. The relief was only temporary as Perez was there to poke home Perkins’ parry as the ball fell to the feet of the Panamanian poacher, who was elated to open his account with his new club with a composed finish.
Portland had shown in their home opener that they were capable of recovering from a deficit, and the goal seemed to inspire a more concerted effort to score one of their own, Portland looking the more likely to score as they ramped up pressure to end the half. Their best chance unsurprisingly came on a Jewsbury set piece in the 36th minute, with Lovel Palmer unlucky not to convert when his header beat Kevin Hartman but not the woodwork, the goalpost denying the Jamaican a chance to level matters before the break.
Jorge Perlaza would be replaced at the interval by Darlington Nagbe, and the gaffer’s confidence in the young Liberian paid off six minutes after the break as he would unlock the Dallas defense with the game tying tally.
Nagbe, who played a lackluster cameo role in the club’s opening night victory, instantly looked more comfortable in his role as a deep lying striker, and his freedom to roam caused havoc for the home side’s back four, who had arguably strengthened by bringing on George John before the break.
Nagbe applied pressure on a seemingly innocuous ball that was laid off to Hartman, forcing the keeper into delivering a miserable clearance, one that popped up in a dangerous area just outside the eighteen yard box. Kris Boyd, who’d had a frustrating night to this point, was there to challenge for the loose ball, and it was his presence that forced an error from defender Daniel Hernandez, whose first touch went awry and released Nagbe into the box.
Nagbe had started the play in an offside position, but he was alert to the fact that his position was nullified following the defender’s touch, and he sprinted into space to take one touch before coolly slotting home past the hapless Hartman. The leveler brought cheers from the nearby support of the traveling Timbers Army, and it was again game on.
Portland would have the better attacking attempts as the game wore on, Boyd’s long range strike in the 59th minute nearly catching Hartman out, but the Dallas netminder did well to push wide.The Scot further displayed his predatory instincts in the 71st minute, pouncing on a loose ball in the box to lash a shot at the near post from a tight angle, but again Hartman was equal to the strike as his kick save rebounded fortunately off the post and back into his hands. Minutes later Hernandez would try to make amends for his earlier error, but Perkins would be there to deny his effort from deep in midfield.
After that the threat of a winning goal waned for both sides as each tried to score on the counter, but neither Perkins or Hartman were budging. James Marcelin came on in the 77th minute to provide defensive solidity in replacement of Eric Alexander, the winger exiting to applause after he faced his former side for the first time since a trade to Portland last year.
The encounter would end in a stalemate, a fair result for both sides, but both keepers will be wishing they could take back just one play each from the match, Perkins thinking he could have pushed the ball away from Perez’s path, while Hartman ruing his failed clearance that let points slip from his club’s grasp.
Hanyer Mosquera did well in his league debut following completion of his transfer paperwork, but Wallace did himself no favors in imparting belief in his defensive abilities after his inability to intervene on the cross that led to the opening goal. A cardinal rule of defending is to not allow the ball to bounce in the box, and his lack of conviction in clearing the danger showed again why Mike Chabala is a more competent choice at left back.
And surely now Spencer must see that playing Nagbe in his natural position will reap rewards, the talent and opportunism of the player providing more vision and potency than the hard work and dedication of the tireless but profligate Perlaza. Now spoilt with choice at nearly every position, it is just these sort of decisions that will determine both Spencer’s and Portland’s success this season.
While Dallas showed their depth as a makeshift lineup overcame adversity to hang on for a point against inspired opposition, the Timbers will take a road draw as nominal improvement on their abysmal road record last season, and will still need to prove they are capable of winning away if they are to meet raised expectations.
Portland has a chance to show immediate improvement away to the New England Revolution next weekend, and if they can avoid the traditional early goal giveaway, they could earn their first road win in 2012 and start to realize their potential with a more polished performance.