The Portland Timbers eked out a 0-0 draw versus the Columbus Crew Saturday night, a second clean sheet of the season for masked man Troy Perkins the lone highlight of another disappointing home result.
As the lineups emerged, it appeared apparent that Timbers manager John Spencer heard the chorus of pundits calling for changes in the lineup, but as the Scot’s proven before, his choices in personnel range from obvious selection to the lunacy of loyalty. For every positive brought by the inclusion of Franck Songo’o, the retention of Lovel Palmer brought equal and opposite negatives to a squad struggling to build chemistry going forward.
Rodney Wallace returned from injury and found himself in his first starting role on the wing across from Songo’o, playing in front of Mike Chabala, who again usurped the Costa Rican’s left back position while Steven Smith awaits visa paperwork to complete. Jack Jewsbury would assume the right rear flank, a spot he knows well from his days with Kansas City, but an unfamiliar one to Portland supporters accustomed to the captain’s usual role in midfield.
Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso returned from a preseason broken foot to partner Hanyer Mosquera at centerback, the new pairing at the exclusion of Eric Brunner, who wouldn’t be given another chance to be matchwinnner as he was last year in this fixture against his former club. Danso had a few shaky moments, but looked fully recovered and did well to shut down the physical play of Crew striker Emilio Renteria, the Venezuelan’s new partnership with rookie Ethan Finlay coming to no avail for the visitors.
Diego Chara took up his preferred central role alongside Palmer, moving Darlington Nagbe back up top with Kris Boyd, both hopeful of unlocking a makeshift Columbus defense that lost perennial all star Chad Marshall to injury in training the day before.
The changes looked positive early as Songo’o and Wallace made incisive runs on the flanks, but it was Nagbe who came closest to scoring in the 11th minute after collecting a ball flicked on from the head of Boyd, who’d done well to win a long kick from Perkins. Nagbe broke into the box behind Marshall’s replacement Eric Gehrig, but the defender recovered to block the forward’s first attempt on frame.
Ably picking himself up off the turf for a second strike, Nagbe was clumsily bundled over from behind by Josh Williams, yet the match official waived off the penalty claim. Another non call on a key decision surely left Spencer ruing his side’s inability to earn the benefit of the doubt, especially at the Fortress of Thorns.
The Crew made a few forays into Portland’s defensive third, but Wallace took the match’s next best effort, finding space in midfield to unleash a brilliantly struck ball, only for Columbus netminder Andy Gruenebaum to tip wide of the far post. The resulting corner was initially cleared before Songo’o sent in a follow-up cross, the ball knocked down in the box by Boyd, but Mosquera couldn’t connect with an overly ambitious bicycle kick attempt.
Portland were able to stave off the Columbus attack until the 27th minute, when a trickling shot from Milan Mirosevic beat Perkins and forced Chabala to valiantly track back to block the ball from crossing the line, Jewsbury there to head the deflection over the crossbar to safety. The ensuing corner slipped through to an unmarked Williams at the back post, but Chara was there to block his first attempt off the line before the defender sliced a second chance from the rebound into the side netting.
The sides played out the half with half chances abounding, but neither goalkeeper was tested further as both clubs would feel fortunate and frustrated to enter the intermission scoreless. The Timbers Army wouldn’t have to wait long for the offense to have another go, a Boyd layoff to Nagbe in the 46th minute opening up space at the top of the box, but the Liberian’s scooped shot went wide.
Minutes later, the Palmer experiment as defensive midfielder started to show the detrimental effects it has on the flow of the game, the Jamaican’s poor touch causing him to lose possesion before he compounded the issue by lunging into a yellow card tackle on Renteria in an attempt to win the ball back. Palmer felt aggrieved that he was caught by Renteria’s boot in the challenge, but only had himself to blame for the contact after diving in recklessly, and was lucky not to receive further punishment after swiping his hand across Marshall’s neck to brush him away as a clash of players closed in on the referee in the aftermath.
Palmer managed to calm down his temper, but lacked consistency in a controlling touch, a deficiency that proved the inherent flaw in Spencer’s strategy. Time and again the midfielder failed to deny service and killed momentum more for his own club than the opposition.
Portland resumed their pressure out of the break when Chara and Wallace nearly combined, the Colombian leading the Tico into space only for Wallace’s shot to nutmeg his defender but skip straight to Gruenebaum for the save. Mosquera continued to show his aplomb at breaking up plays with timely interceptions, Songo’o picking up the scraps to release Nagbe to the top of the box before he was brought down by Nemanja Vukovic just outside the eighteen.
The Timbers tried to take a quick restart when Wallace put the ball into the back of the net for the only time of the evening, but the referee called it back as he was still busy handing out a yellow to Vukovic for his cynical tackle on Nagbe.
The set piece looked like training ground stuff as Nagbe and Jewsbury lined up to take the kick, Nagbe slotting the ball through the captain’s legs to set up Boyd for a shot. Boyd smacked the ball around the wall, but the bend wasn’t enough to curl back inside the post. The near miss seemed to ignite the til then dormant Boyd, the once prolific scorer eager to regain his finishing touch.
Before his fire was fully lit, the Crew showed some life as they earned a corner in the 66th minute, Williams connecting from short range with his head on the inswinging ball, only to watch Perkins thwart him with a reactive parry over the bar. A second corner saw the ball fall to Eddie Gaven, but the Crew winger’s long range effort sailed comfortably over the goal as the Timbers regained possession.
As the ball came forward, Wallace found Nagbe in the box, but his angle was acute and he cut back to Songo’o, who one-timed his cross perfectly to the head of Boyd, but the Scot couldn’t direct it on frame as the best chance of the match went agonizingly wide. Moments later, Songo’o again displayed pinpoint distribution with a lobbed pass to Wallace, who swiveled expertly and fired on goal, yet again Gruenebaum was there as he tipped wide at full stretch.
That would prove Songo’o's last real contribution, and just before he exited he put his only foot wrong as he came in late to a tackle on Vukovic, earning a yellow as he exited for Eric Alexander in the 75th minute. Alexander came on to provide some fresh legs late, but his impact was minimal in his first appearance in three matches.
A minute later Nagbe made another mazy run through the heart of the Columbus midfield to earn another dangerous free kick just outside the area. Jewsbury and Boyd lined up for the shot, but Renteria’s encroachment forced the captain to ask for a full ten yards. The Timbers forfeited any element of surprise once he finally took the free kick, and instead of a Boyd blast a timid pass to Palmer predictably resulted in a wasteful loss of possession.
Newly acquired forward Mike Fucito entered in the 81st minute to replace the impressive Wallace, and the former Seattle Sounder’s insertion nearly bore witness to a goal as a free kick found Boyd. Boyd kept his header on frame this time, but Gruenebaum corralled. Nagbe threatened again in the 84th minute, slicing through the middle and shooting from deep, but his grass cutting strike couldn’t find the net as the Crew keeper remained obstinate.
Columbus ground out the minutes as injury time expired, a last second corner kick finding Boyd again, but he could only hit another header too far off the mark as the final whistle blew.
Perkins gains even more admiration as he gutted out the draw while his nose recovered from the gash he received courtesy of a boot to the face from Montreal’s Sanna Nyassi in the loss at Montreal. Outside of another shutout, Perkins was still left dejected as his counterpart in goal for Columbus exceeded his exploits and barred Portland from a home victory.
The Timbers can take some solace in avoiding a loss and finding a more demonstrative defense, but it’s clear that tactics continue to leave them wanting in the end. Although there were bright moments throughout the match, the tempo was undone by another tandem of two defensive midfielders in Palmer and Chara. The changes were evident in the team’s improvement, the things that stayed the same showing why evolution was necessary in the first place.
Wallace and Songo’o displayed enough spark to earn another start on the flanks, and if Spencer continues his trend to put players in their natural position, Alexander may be given the opportunity to partner with Chara and offer Portland a less combustible cog in the center of the park.
The Timbers next match is away to the Houston Dynamo in a week and a half’s time, a slightly longer break perhaps offering the gaffer time to seriously review the match video and see the same slights directed at his weakest link by the naysayers. A proud coach might rebuff these advances, but a pragmatic one will continue to refine his methods to settle on a winning formula.