PORTLAND — Another uninspired start had the Portland Timbers searching for a tying goal late in Sunday’s match against the Chicago Fire.
Another opportunistic finish by Gaston Fernandez produced that goal, but the 1-1 draw had a decidedly unsatisfying feel for a Timbers team pursuing greatness.
Two games into their 2014 season, the Timbers have only two points after a pair of home draws. That is actually one point better than last season, when Portland opened the season with a draw and a loss at home. But, for the second time in eight days, the Timbers felt like they missed an opportunity to do more at Providence Park.
There were four high-quality scoring chances in the second half that didn’t net a goal.
“Some of them were harder to miss than make,” Timbers coach Caleb Porter observed.
Aside from that, the coach saw more positives than negatives, pointing to the Timbers having 64 percent of the possession, 21 shots and ability to come from behind.
“If we weren’t playing well, it we were the team that had less possession, less shots, I’d be worried, because those are things that are tougher to change,” the coach said.
Fernandez scored his second late goal, this time by calmly directing a rebound home in the 79th minute. The play started with Diego Chara sending a pass to Jack Jewsbury on the right wing. Jewsbury slipped a pass to Diego Valeri, who sent a diagonal ball toward the top of the 18-yard box. Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson stopped Darlington Nagbe’s low shot but the rebound went right to Fernandez for a tap-in goal.
The play was like many in the second half, when the Timbers passed the ball into spaces on each wing to open up seams in Chicago’s tight defense. In the 56th minute, both Fernandez and Maximilliano Urruti just missed connecting on a low cross from Valeri that skipped through the 6-yard box. In the 66th, Sean Johnson made a diving stop on a Valeri shot, then Lovell Palmer got in the way of Steve Zakuani’s follow up before Will Johnson attempted a bicycle kick.
Five minutes later Johnson missed a wide-open goal gy inches after Johnson and one of his defenders misplayed the ball 20 yards from goal. The Timbers captain admitted that opportunity will haunt him for a few days.
“I think I missed the easiest one of all, so I have to apologize to my teammates and to the fans as well,” Will Johnson said.
More bothersome, though, was a second consecutive ineffective opening half. Chicago’s aggressive tackling, especially in the middle of the park, prevented the Timbers any positive possessions until very late in the first half.
“For whatever reason we were a bit lethargic,” Porter said. “They were hitting us on counters, and I thought the back line could have dealt with it a little bit better.”
Forward Quincy Amarikwa was particularly pesky, and drew the penalty kick that Jeff Larentowicz converted in the 19th minute. Timbers defender Norberto Paparatto tried to step in front of Amarikwa to win a ball that came from a free kick in Chicago’s half. But the ball and the forward got behind Paparatto, who fell on top of Amairkwa.
Porter said his team was too passive in the first half, that the Timbers need to be “a little bit hungrier just ball winning, going and getting tackles.”
Will Johnson said that the Fire’s up-field pressure had the Timbers playing more up the middle of the field in the first half.
“They were putting a little pressure on us, for sure, so we were playing a little more direct and we just had a hard time keeping the ball down on the ground,” Johnson said
After halftime, Chicago’s best scoring chance came in the 92nd minute. Bakary Soumare got to the end of a Fire free kick for a point-blank opportunity, but Timbers goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts threw his body at the ball.
While acknowledging that it sometimes takes time to develop chemistry around new players, including Paparatto and Fernandez, Will Johnson said that doesn’t explain the Timbers’ slow starts to games or errant finishing on quality chances.
“We’ve got a lot of time left in the season, but if you don’t start to get that right obviously you start to fall farther and farther behind (in the standings) and put yourself in a tough spot,” Johnson said. “It’s something we need to get right quickly.”