What Matters in Portland

By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 9, 2013) US Soccer Players – It doesn’t matter that Dominic Kinnear did not have two of his best attacking players, Oscar Boniek Garcia and Will Bruin, available for selection. It doesn’t matter that Houston isn’t much for road games anyway, unless there’s a trophy or a MLS Cup final berth on the line. It doesn’t matter that it was pouring down rain on an artificial surface, and that all of the tangible advantages rested on the side of Caleb Porter’s home standing Timbers. For the purposes of this experiment, the one that’s suppose to transform Portland into a team capable of more possession, more goals, and a better week-to-week outlook under the former Akron Zips maestro, everything about the Portland Timbers’ 2-0 victory over the defending Eastern Conference champions Houston Dynamo on Saturday night (save one horrible injury) was perfect.

Most perfect of all wasn’t Ryan Johnson, despite the fact the Jamaican forward scored twice and earned himself an MLS Player of the Week award for the effort. Nor was it the collective performance of the Portland defense, which kept Houston at bay all night with relative ease. It wasn’t two impromptu fill-ins forced into action due to injury either, defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste (on for center back David Horst) and midfielder Khalif Alhassan (on for Argentine playmaker Diego Valeri). It wasn’t even the stellar and dynamic play of the electric Darlington Nagbe, a star in the making beginning to show his vast potential beyond the occasional highlight reel goal. With Valeri subbed off and Al-Hassan on the wing, Nagbe shone in the middle of the field.

No, most perfect of all was Colombian Designated Player Diego Chara, who hardly missed a pass and set up Johnson’s second goal of the night with an inch-perfect cross in the 73rd minute. This might have been Chara’s best performance in a Timbers jerseys, a truly excellent 90 minutes that showed why he received a hefty contract from Portland two years ago as the team’s first-ever Designated Player. Through two seasons, he’s rarely showed that type of complete game. If that’s the Diego Chara that the Timbers will get under Caleb Porter, he’s primed to finally live up to the status.

Every new regime needs a game like this, when everything seems to fall into place and the team can see the tangible reward of all the change. A smart coach will take it whenever he can get it, no matter the quality of the competition or the mitigating factors involved. On one hand, Porter gets his Timbers “eureka” moment against a back-to-back MLS Cup finalist with an all-time great MLS head coach on the other side. On the other, Houston wasn’t nearly at full strength, has a reputation for strategically under-emphasizing tough road games, and lacked scoring punch. The Dynamo were ripe for the taking, and it would have ultimately been a disappointment if the traditionally strong at home Timbers had failed to take advantage.

The quality of the win, weakened not-totally-committed Dynamo or not, was such that Porter can justifiably spin the performance into a proof-of-concept for his team and his leadership. Even better, thanks to the injuries to Horst and Valeri, the Timbers “came together” and played their best soccer of the year down two starters. Jean-Baptiste will now take Horst’s place (the defender had surgery on Monday will likely miss the rest of the season) full of confidence having been part of the Timber’s best game of 2013. Alhassan’s play in a pinch gives everyone confidence that the Timbers have depth to weather injuries. Nagbe’s game will feed belief that he’s ready to take the next step into Major League Soccer’s attacking player elite.

There’s no doubt that Porter and the Timbers would have preferred to get their first win of the new era under their belts before the fifth game of the year. If they had to wait, better that the win when it finally came, looked like this – full of exciting movement, creative inspiration, gutsy understudy performances–than something ugly and utilitarian (read: something that resembled the “old” Timbers way) that brought with it three points and little more. Leaving the past behind is about more than just winning games.

An ugly win might make the standings look a little better. It might create a few good feelings that could last until the next game. It wouldn’t, however, be something to build on in any meaningful way. It wouldn’t open up the future to the possibilities of exciting soccer under Caleb Porter. It wouldn’t allow for long-term belief that this direction is the right direction after the last direction was so clearly not.

Thanks to their win over the Dynamo, Timbers now sit in seventh in the early going in the Western Conference. They’ll need to replicate their success against the Dynamo before anyone will believe them a contender, and they’ll need to do it on the road if they’re even going to compete for a playoff spot. Chara will have to be consistent with his excellence. Ryan Johnson will need to remain a scoring threat the whole year and shake the streaky reputation he’s garnered. Darlington Nagbe must prove that this wasn’t a false step onto the next level of his game.

With apologies to David Horst, the win was perfect. As for the rest? Well, it doesn’t matter.

Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the co-host of The Best Soccer Show. Contact him:matchfitusa@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/davisjsn.

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