PORTLAND – Recent struggles have put the Portland Timbers in a more precarious position in the Major League Soccer standings.
But their footing at Jeld-Wen Field continues to be just fine.
Goals from Kalif Alhassan, Rodney Wallace, Will Johnson and Diego Valeri did the job on Saturday, as the Timbers took care of business against Toronto FC in front of another sellout crowd.
The 4-0 win ended Portland’s first string of losses this season at two, and earned the Timbers an important three points in the tight Western Conference playoff battle. The Timbers (10 wins, 12 ties, and five losses) share fourth place in the conference with the Colorado Rapids at 42 points. Portland has played one fewer game than Colorado.
The Timbers have not lost at home since the second game of the season, posting eight wins and three draws since falling to Montreal in March.
Saturday’s outcome was in doubt longer than Portland’s fans would have liked against one of the worst teams in the league. But three goals in the last 10 minutes – all after Valeri entered in the 77th minute – made sure Portland got this needed win.
Until a Valeri steal set up Wallace’s goal in the 83rd minute, Portland held a 1-0 lead that looked tenuous as Toronto pressed forward.
“I don’t think we were ever very concerned,” said Will Johnson, who played alongside midfield partner Diego Chara for the first time since July 20. “But we had to stay focused. We were on top of each other making sure we were all accountable, holding ourselves accountable on set pieces.”
Timbers coach Caleb Porter was particularly pleased with the way his team defended Toronto’s seven corner kicks, four coming with the Timbers protecting the 1-0 lead in the second half.
“I was very proud of our guys, the way we managed the second half,” Porter said. “Especially on corner kicks and set pieces.”
Milos Kocic, who made two saves in the shutout win against his former team, said accountability was key.
“Everybody has their own people they have to to pick up,” Kocic said of defending corner kicks. “I think the guys did a tremendous job tonight.”
Added Johnson, “It was a good test for us. They pushed some numbers (forward) . They had their chances. Every time they had a dead ball within 60 yards of the goal it was getting pumped into the box and we had to deal with it.”
An adductor muscle strain prevented Valeri from starting, but the Argentine had a significant impact at the game’s end. Valeri entered the match for Alhassan in the 81st minute and the after a five-minute spell when the visitors looked dangerous.
Pouncing on a poor touch by Toronto’s Gale Agbossoumonde, Valeri poked a pass that set up Wallace for the pressure-relieving second goal.
In the 87th minute Johnson, playing his first match in a month because of a shoulder injury, made it 3-0 off a set up from Jose Valencia. And in added time, Valeri turned another Valencia offering into a tap-in finish.
The conclusion produced a deceptive margin against a Toronto team (4-10-13) that created enough forward thrust on counter attacks to keep the Timbers on edge.
A first half that produced both scary moments and frustrating ones for the Timbers ended with a great finish thanks to Alhassan. The midfielder trapped the ball with his chest and struck it with his right foot before it hit the turf, driving a shot that Toronto goalkeeper Joe Bendik had no chance to stop.
Alhassan had earlier hit the post with a shot from inside the 18-yard box and also missed the target with a couple of high-difficulty shots. But he used power instead of touch to score the goal.
Also in the first half, Alhassan saved a goal with his head, clearing away a Darel Russell shot that resulted from a Toronto corner kick. That was one of a few near misses for the visitors. Out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference and with nothing to lose, Toronto wasn’t shy about pushing forward when the opportunity was there.
With Ryan Johnson, Donovan Ricketts and Alvas Powell away with the Jamaican national team, Valencia made his first start at forward, Kocic made his second start of the season in goal, and Sal Zizzo drew the assignment at right back.
Porter noted that the recent challenges presented by difficult losses, injuries and other absences provided a chance for teammates to step up.
“We’ve been humbled a little bit,” the coach said. “We’ve had to fight through some things. It’s built our character. It’s increased our depth. And I think it’s made us hungrier for this final push.”
NOTES – The four-goal victory was the largest margin so far for a Timbers MLS team.
With his assist on Wallace’s goal, Valeri moved into a tie for the league lead in assists with 12. Philadelphia’s Sebastien Le Toux also has a dozen assists.
Alhassan has scored in consecutive home matches. His first goal of the season gave Portland a brief lead in the 3-3 draw with Real Salt Lake on Aug. 20.
Portland attempted 21 shots, seven of them on target. The Timbers finished with a 66 percent of possession against a Toronto side willing to sit back and hope a Portland mistake produced a counter attack.
Brad Ring, acquired from San Jose in a trade this week, replaced Darlington Nagbe in the first minute of stoppage time.
The Timbers next play another of the league’s struggling teams, taking on Chivas USA in Los Angeles on Sept. 14.