The Portland Timbers continued their push for a postseason berth, earning a draw in a nil-nil final at the Philadelphia Union Saturday night. The sides played to a hard fought stalemate after 90 plus minutes, and the Timbers faithful let out a massive sigh of relief when a late effort from the Union’s Kyle Nakazawa clanged off the crossbar, effectively ensuring both sides would share the points.
The visitors were under pressure early, with Philly’s Michael Farfan presenting the home side with the first opportunity in the 5th minute, skinning Lovel Palmer down the wing to deliver a menacing cross across the six yard box. Captain Jack Jewsbury was first to react, tracking back to avert the danger with a diving clearance, a key intervention with former Oregon State player Danny Mwanga lurking in the box behind him.
The Union would continue to threaten, and Mwanga would again be involved as a well served ball in the box forced Eric Brunner to head away, the defender coming out on the short end as heads collided. Down for a few moments, Brunner would leave temporarily and return bravely with a freshly wrapped head after a short spell on the sidelines. Portland would be thankful of his continued inclusion, as he and centerback mate and Pennsylvania native David Horst would be crucial to the clean sheet.
Philly would find another chance in the 28th minute after Roger Torres chipped into Sebastian Le Toux, who did well to bring the ball down off his chest to turn and fire, but the Frenchman would be disappointed to see his shot go wide of the far post. Le Toux would feel even more aggrieved minutes later, feeling the brunt of a heavy but clean challenge from Brunner, whose tackle took the ball before leveling the Union striker.
Offensively, Portland finally got going late in the first half as Sal Zizzo burst down the wing in the 39th minute, but seemed caught between two minds as his cross cum shot was too tame as rookie netminder Zac MacMath easily covered. Kalif Alhassan would release Zizzo again moments later, but although this effort had more power it lacked accuracy as it blazed over into the stands.
The Timbers would continue their late momentum, pushing high up the pitch as Jewsbury’s superb cross from the right flank forced Philly to clear for a corner. The hosts would remain under the cosh as the break neared, and were ever grateful to MacMath for denying Jorge Perlaza’s one on one excellence as he blitzed past his defender but couldn’t get past the young goalkeeper.
Portland would resume its’ attack shortly after the interval, Alhassan again expertly picking out Zizzo’s run, but the winger’s chip went over MacMath only to fall into the box for a harried clearance from the Union defense before Perlaza could put a touch to the ball. Kenny Cooper would then make a nice turn to try and convert from long range in the 52nd minute, but his strike only found the side netting.
In response to Portland’s sizzling start and a banged up Torres, Philly manager Peter Nowak would bring on Justin Mapp for the Colombian in the 56th minute for the game’s first change. Before the substitute could impose himself on the match, Cooper would try and test MacMath again from distance in the 59th, but the man between the pipes easily corralled the effort.
Timbers manager John Spencer would effect the next change, relieving Perlaza for the evening as Bright Dike entered in the 60th minute, bringing on a player that would put on display the quickness and and inventiveness that his strike partner Cooper lacks. Nowak would counter with a swap of Jack McIerney for Freddy Adu, who never really made an impression on the proceedings. Mwanga would make an impression in the 69th, forcing Troy Perkins to bat clear a blistering shot that came through Mike Chabala’s legs as the Congolese unleashed from outside the box.
The Union would add to the pressure in the 71st minute, a deflected clearance falling to Mapp, who connected well with a volley but couldn’t keep his shot down as it flew harmlessly into the Sons of Ben supporters. Rodney Wallace would then enter in the 72nd minute to spell Alhassan, while Nakawaza would replace Veljko Paunovic in the 77th as Philly made their third and final change. Spencer would use Portland’s final sub in the 81st, taking off Zizzo for Darlington Nagbe.
In a match between two sides desperate for three points to solidify a spot in the playoffs, both would squander golden chances to seize a victory in the waning moments. Portland would whiff first after Diego Chara did well to break up a Philly through ball, then got the ball back to begin a lung busting run up the middle in the 85th minute. Nearing the box, Chara dished to Cooper, but the forward agonizingly failed to find the frame as he snatched his shot wide with only the keeper to beat.
Portland and Cooper would nearly rue this miss even more moments later, as Mapp took advantage of a slip from Chabala to send in a tantalizing cross that found Nakazawa open in the middle of the box in the 88th minute. The substitute looked to make his manager proud as he struck the ball sublimely to beat Perkins, but was holding his head in his hands as it caromed off the woodwork.
The Timbers would count their blessings as the clock wound down, earning a deserved point to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Union, despite the point and results in other matches pushing them back into the third guaranteed berth in the Eastern Conference, will certainly look back to two consecutive draws at home this late in the season as a pivotal stretch to decide if they ultimately qualify.
Portland’s hopes were somewhat diminished in the playoff race due to other league results, but they are still well within striking distance. If Portland fails to qualify, they can certainly look back to this match as one they could have won, with a conservative approach from Spencer their undoing.
The perplexing loyalty the gaffer holds for the ineffective Cooper leaves supporters questioning his tactics, particularly with so many more dynamic options on the roster at his disposal. It’s not simply the anemia the Texan has shown in front of goal this season, it’s his lack of pace that is forcing Portland into a plodding style that requires the team to play down to Cooper’s speed, rather than what surely is Spencer’s preferred plan of playing a high tempo style to capitalize on the youth and quickness of his squad.
Portland survived Philly to play another home set with the New England Revolution on tap at Jeld Wen Field Friday, followed shortly after with a Wednesday tilt against the San Jose Earthquakes. Should Spencer continue to keep the faith in Cooper over Perlaza, Dike, or Nagbe, the Timbers Army can only hope Brunner or another defender can continue to supply the offense at the Fortress of Thorns after another impotent road performance.
The Timbers destiny remains in their hands, but with the rescheduled fixture versus DC United looming near season’s end, they still must take maximum points at home and do better than draws in their remaining road matches to ensure they don’t leave it too late. Here’s to Spencer taking the kid gloves off in the stretch run, and letting his strikers do the talking as Portland matches it’s defensive steel with offensive aplomb.