The Portland Timbers have played well at times this season, but in Saturday's 2-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo they went to the next level and played the best second half in their time as an MLS team.
The best part to me was that they did it after a first half that couldn't have gotten much worse. They didn't give up a goal but they lost two key players. Center back David Horst went down awkwardly chasing a ball and looked to suffer a serious leg or knee injury. Andrew Jean-Baptiste came in for him. Later Diego Valeri was elbowed in the head and went out as he appeared to have a concussion and Kalif Alhassan was Portland's second substitution. Down two starters in the first half to a physical Houston team could have been a recipe for a long night. I thought the Timbers would spend the rest of the game just trying to avoid giving up a goal.
Portland has had a track record this season of strong second halves, however, and they continued that against Houston. Diego Chara, who spent more time in the central midfield where he thrives, worked a nice passing combination with Darlington Nagbe which ended with Chara running down the right side to the goal line. His cross was met at the far post by Ryan Johnson. Johnson got the ball on goal with his shin or knee, Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall couldn't hang on, and the Timbers had taken the lead in the 55th minute.
Instead of sitting back and protecting the lead, Portland kept attacking after the first goal. Their approach paid off in the 73rd minute. Nagbe picked off the ball at the top of his own penalty area, starting a series of passes through the midfield that ended with Nagbe's through ball to Ryan Johnson on the left. Johnson took the ball into the penalty area for a 1v1 with Hall and calmly finished inside the far post for his second goal of the game and a 2-0 lead for Portland. Johnson demonstrated a scoring instinct that Portland's forwards of the past two years haven't always had. On the first goal he was able to put away an excellent cross, as a good forward should. On his second he didn't get excited about having a clear scoring chance. He saw where the keeper was and used his skill to pick out and make the shot he wanted. I think he's the striker Portland has been looking for.
A two-goal lead was more than enough the way the Timbers defense, especially center back Mikael Silvestre and emergency sub Jean-Baptiste, played Saturday. The first career MLS win for Caleb Porter and the Timbers' first win of 2013 was well deserved as the Timbers outplayed the Dynamo in every aspect.
What I liked the most about this win was the way the Timbers responded when things didn't go their way in the first half. The loss of two starters against a team as good as Houston was a major blow, but Portland fought back and earned a dominant win. Not only has Porter changed the team's strategy, just as importantly he's changed the attitude. Both qualities will be important to their success now and in the future.