PORTLAND — There was more opening-night magic for the Portland Timbers.
It wasn’t the smashing success they hoped for, but when Gaston Fernandez scored in the final seconds of stoppage time, the Timbers had an improbable 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union on Saturday in Providence Park.
The Philadelphia defense, which was outstanding most of the night, somehow left Fernandez unmarked in the 6-yard box, and the Argentine calmly headed the ball into the net when it deflected to him off Will Johnson’s quickly taken corner kick.
The goal in front of the Timbers Army gave the crowd of 20,674 something to celebrate at the end of a rainy night, and prevented Portland from losing a home opener for the first time in Major League Soccer.
Until the last-second, it looked as if Philadelphia would begin the season with a victory on Jack McInerney’s 64th-minute goal from a Union corner kick.
Portland pushed players forward searching for a goal, but as was the case through much of preseason the quality finishing wasn’t there.
“We’re just a bit soft right now” in the penalty area, Johnson said.
But as frustrating as the missed chances were for the Timbers, Philadelphia’s defense stayed organized and limited Portland’s space and time from midfield into the attacking area.
Fernandez, in his MLS debut, broke through on a corner kick that was earned when a Steve Zakuani shot was blocked. Johnson hustled to the right corner and, knowing only seconds remained, took a quick kick that was deflected before it found Fernandez in the right spot.
“I’ve got to give our guys a lot of credit for pulling out a point,” Timbers coach Caleb Porter said.
Despite owning a 60-40 advantage in the percentage of possession, and outshooting the Union 15-10, the Timbers were staring at getting blanked.
“They’ve shown that mettle and grit and fight and refuse-to-lose attitude,” Porter said of his team. “But I’d like to see it a bit more in the boxes.”
On the rain-soaked field, both teams struggled with first-touches, and Johnson said the Timbers needed to be better controlling the ball in order to dictate the game.
An early goal might have changed that dynamic. The Timbers best chance of the first half came from a corner kick in the third minute. Johnson’s flick header reached Pa Modou Kah at the back post, but Kah’s shot hit the post. Aside from that, a 30-yard blast by Diego Valeri that skirted just outside the left post in the 43rd minute was the most dangerous Portland effort of the half.
Kah was forced to leave with an undisclosed injury in the 34th minute. Mamadou “Futty” Danso took his place, alongside Norberto Papratto, who along with fellow Argentine Fernandez made his MLS debut.
After Portland dictated play for the first 12-15 minutes, Philadelphia was the more dangerous team for much of the first half. Timbers goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts made his first big stop of the season to deny a Cristian Maidana shot in 20th minute on a chance created by a Maurice Edu run into the penalty area.
The Union had two more good chances, including a chip by McInerney that clipped the crossbar before Papratto cleared the trouble from the goal mouth.
Valeri and Johnson had promising chances that missed in the second half, and several crosses missed teammates in potential scoring positions.
Porter said he was pleased with the chances his team created, but the coach continues to seek better quality around goal.
“I think the floodgates are opening soon,” Porter said. “I hope that goal that we got at the end is the one that opens them up.”
Zakuani, the former Sounder who Portland claimed in the offseason, came on in the 85th minute to make his Timbers debut. Zakuani, recovering from offseason surgery, did not see game action in the preseason.
TIMBERS 1, UNION 1
Philadelphia 0 1–1
Portland 0 1–1
Second half–1, Philadelphia, McInerney 1 (Edu, Maidana), 64th minute. 2, Portland, Fernandez 1, 90th+.
Goalies–Philadelphia, Zac MacMath; Portland, Donovan Ricketts.
Yellow Cards–Alves, Philadelphia, 15th; McInerney, Philadelphia, 59th; Gaddis, Philadelphia, 75th; Chara, Portland, 88th.
Referee–Ioannis Stavridis. Assistant Referees–Caleb Mendez. Andrew Bigelow.
Philadelphia–Zac MacMath, Amobi Okugo, Raymon Gaddis, Austin Berry, Fabio Alves, Brian Carroll, Vincent Nogueira, Maurice Edu, Cristian Maidana (Antoine Hoppenot, 80th), Jack McInerney (Aaron Wheeler, 87th), Sebastien Le Toux (Danny Cruz, 70th).
Portland–Donovan Ricketts, Norberto Paparatto, Michael Harrington, Pa-Modou Kah (Mamadou Danso, 34th), Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, Jack Jewsbury (Steve Zakuani, 85th), Diego Chara, Will Johnson, Gaston Fernandez, Maximiliano Urruti (Kalif Alhassan, 73rd).