The Portland Timbers continued their road misery with a loss to Chivas USA Wednesday afternoon, a first ever MLS goal from Miller Bolanos in the 16th minute the visitors undoing at the Home Depot Center.
Portland manager Gavin Wilkinson rang the changes following a loss to Chivas’ fellow HDC tenants, the Los Angeles Galaxy playing spoiler at the Fortress of Thorns in the Kiwi’s MLS coaching debut. Diego Chara returned from a one match suspension to replace Lovel Palmer to form a defensive midfield duo with captain Jack Jewsbury, while Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso partnered with Hanyer Mosquera at centerback, preferred over David Horst.
Wilkinson again set his team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Kris Boyd the lone striker with Eric Alexander, Darlington Nagbe, and Kalif Alhassan in support. Alhassan was the first to test Chivas netminder Dan Kennedy, a long range effort sailing high over the crossbar in the opening exchanges.
Ryan Smith, a player familiar to Portland supporters from his influence in the Goats win at JELD-WEN Field back in April, looked liveliest early for the hosts, ripping a shot wide of the post. The effort was a harbinger of things to come, Smith absolutely schooling his namesake opposing defender Steven Smith, flicking the ball up and over the stumbling Scot’s head before cutting inside Danso to deliver a dangerous ball across the six yard box.
Troy Perkins was there to parry the cross to the far post, but it fell invitingly to Bolanos, the Ecuadorean more than happy to dispatch the ball into the back of the net as Kosuke Kimura looked on in despair. The goal was the first in three matches for Chivas and set them up with an early lead, a dangerous position for the Timbers and their woeful road form.
The Smith on Smith action continued throughout the half, the Chivas version again getting the better of the Scot to send in another dangerous cross in the 20th minute, only for Mosquera to clear the ball as he, Perkins, and Goats striker Alejandro Moreno collided. While Mosquera lay on the turf and eventually recovered, Moreno took the brunt of the impact and required an escort to the sidelines for a respite before returning eight minutes later.
Despite the temporary man advantage, the Timbers couldn’t make Chivas pay, and a few half chances from the visitors hardly tested the All Star Kennedy in goal before the break. At the interval, the Timbers road form appeared no better than in their previous eight sojourns away from home under previous manager John Spencer. Kimura tried to show some grit in earning a yellow card just after the restart, a rare sign of life in a Timbers team devoid of passion.
Moreno was the first to exit the game as a result of his earlier injury, Juan Pablo Angel replacing him in the 56th minute. Wilkinson countered Chivas manager Robin Fraser’s subsitution in the 61st minute, Franck Songo’o coming on for Darlington Nagbe, who for all his talk of potential is more reminiscent of a Freddy Adu type talent, his dip in form since a bright start to the season a sign expectations are too high for the second year player. Fraser responded by removing the goalscorer Bolanos a minute later for Jorge Villafana.
Shortly after, perhaps Portland’s clearest chance of the match came when Jewsbury slipped into the box and cut a backheel pass to Alexander, who took one touch before unleashing a shot just wide of the near post. Despite the relevant danger, it was telling when the match commentators noted minutes later that Kennedy was making his first save from a shot on goal in the 69th minute. That shot would prove Alexander’s last action of the match, shortly after removed in favor of Sal Zizzo.
As the match progressed, Chivas looked content to possess the ball, and Portland were oddly resembling a team trying to protect a lead, packing numbers into their own box and using some desperate defending to avoid dropping into a deeper hole. Angel created a moment of panic for Portland when he broke clear for a one on one with Perkins, who clumsily cleared the ball to the top of the box. Paolo Cardozo was quickest to the loose ball and chipped the keeper, but the Uruguayan was unlucky as he put too much English on his shot and saw it steer just wide of the far post.
Cardozo was then replaced with Peter Vagenas in the 75th minute, followed by Danny Mwanga entering for Alhassan as both teams used their third and final substitutions. Time was dwindling down for the Timbers, and a spark of hope appeared as Peter Vagenas was forced to leave with injury, the longtime MLS veteran’s cameo cut short in the 83rd minute. Boyd nearly compounded Chivas’ concern a minute after his departure, latching onto a fine ball from Smith, but his volley went wide to stay on theme for the day.
Smith made a bending effort that again clipped wide in the waning minutes, while a tame effort from Mwanga in stoppage time was all Portland could muster in another disappointing defeat away.
A third straight loss for Portland exhibited no evidence of the offensive chemistry Wilkinson predicted, unsurprising given the formation was not so radically different from that of his failed predecessor. Against the club with the league’s worst home record, the team with the league’s worst road record were the ones to blink first in a game of chicken that’s become almost comical in nature.
Both teams came out with conservative lineups, yet Fraser is demonstrating how to make such a defensive setup operate effectively, Kennedy notching a third consecutive clean sheet while Perkins dreams for a return of the stingy defense that looked to be rounding into form just two months ago.
Against a team not known for its scoring prowess, it’s peculiar that Wilkinson opted for a reserved approach when a more attacking lineup was obvious against a side built to counter. Rather than provide protection, the congested midfield is appearing more and more bereft of ideas of how to shut down opposing teams.
While Wilkinson took the blame for the tumult that ensued the week prior to the team’s loss at the weekend, he suggested before the match the players were to be held accountable for their performances against Chivas. The performances were certainly subpar across the park, but the bigger question is how players are utilized and in what combinations.
It’s apparent that real change must occur on the pitch if a revolution in results is to manifest, and if a new manager comes in, even an interim one at that, he must be willing to deconstruct the team that failed to meet expectations. If the leader on the sidelines is no longer shouldering the blame, it’s time to rotate the field general and offer the armband to a player who can inspire the team to victory.
5 losses in their last 7 matches speaks to a fundamental flaw with the system, the one assumed to be the philosophical difference between the old and new regimes. No visible improvement can be identified since the transition occurred, and the deployment of personnel is so similar it’s unrealistic to think results will change, particularly on the road.
Now mired dead last in the West due to goal differential, the winless road warriors need to find the gumption to overcome their pitiful play away. That opportunity comes quickly with a visit to FC Dallas on Saturday, the team that sits one place above them in the standings.
The Timbers are going deep into the heart of Texas, if they’re to walk away winners they’ll need to stop plucking at the heartstrings of sentimentality and show the same cold blooded-ness on the field as the front office did in axing Spencer.