By Ridge Mahoney
Perhaps it’s appropriate that a squad nicknamed The Goonies has a bogey team.
But the San Jose Earthquakes, winner of the Supporters’ Shield last year, still winless in seven games against 2011 expansion entrant Portland? That’s a bit strange, but stats are stats.
Despite conceding a stoppage-time equalizer to the specialists in such matters Saturday night, the Timbers left Buck Shaw Stadium with a 1-1 tie that ran their record against the Quakes to 2-0-5. They’ve yet to lose at Buck Shaw, having tied all three of their games during the regimes of head coaches John Spencer, Gavin Wilkinson and Caleb Porter.
Wilkinson, who took over on an interim basis for Spencer last year and upon the hiring of Porter returned to his position as general manager, was on hand at Buck Shaw to evaluate how the transformation is taking place.
“Caleb has done a fantastic job with the players,” said Wilkinson after the Timbers, which finished eighth in the Western Conference last year, stayed in fifth place a point ahead of the Quakes with a 2-1-4 record. “They seem to be enjoying themselves as well, which is an added bonus.
“You can see it in the results and the way that we’re playing. I think Caleb’s done a tremendous job, very quickly, of giving everyone the blueprint of how he wants us to play. As a road performance goes it wasn’t the best performance from us but we got out with a point and were unlucky not to get a little bit more, the way the game progressed.”
Porter’s possession-style of play and 4-3-3 formation clashed -- literally at times -- with San Jose’s bang-and-go approach designed to exploit the power and aerial prowess of Steven Lenhart as well as Chris Wondolowski’s knack of snapping up chances. A week earlier, Portland had rung up 64.7 percent of the possession while beating the Quakes, 1-0, at Jeld-Wen Field, but at Buck Shaw wasn't nearly so successful at what Porter preaches.
“We prepared our guys to deal with balls in the air a lot, first and second balls, box defending," said Porter. "We wanted to press their service so they couldn’t just pick their heads up and dump quality balls in.
“We wanted to win the ball and get it down and play a bit and force them to defend. If there was one thing maybe this game we didn’t do as well as the first game was probably hold the ball as much. I don’t think we had as much possession.” Right he was; the stat sheet split possession nearly down the middle, with Portland’s 50.9 percent edging that of San Jose.
Speaking of edge, an incident at Jeld-Wen Field had sharpened the mood. Quakes forward Alan Gordon, responding to a taunt from captain and midfielder Will Johnson, blurted a homophobic slur that resulted in a three-game suspension.
The Quakes made a point of racking up Johnson, with Lenhart and Sam Cronin taking big chunks out of him on hard challenges. Yet the Timbers captain downplayed any carryover from the incident.
“All these games are more intense,” said Johnson, the target of a similar slur uttered last year by Sounders defender Marc Burch, who also took a three-game hit. “Tensions are high and then obviously the incident from last weekend’s game, some of the guys were saying some stuff about my role in that. That’s why they said they were getting after me. That’s fair play, I can handle it. I respect them as competitors and that’s it.”
Porter installed Johnson as captain shortly after acquiring the former Real Salt Lake stalwart in a trade. He replaces Jack Jewsbury in central midfield as well, with the former captain moving to right back. Other changes, such as the signing of former French international defender Michael Silvestre and Argentine Designated Player Diego Valeri, are also bearing fruit. The spine of the team looks solid, with ex-Quake Ryan Johnson up top, Valeri in the playmaking role backed by Johnson and Diego Chara, Silvestre at center back, and Donovan Ricketts in the nets.
“It’s a fresh start, a new season, so that definitely helps, but you’ve got players like Diego Chara who loves playing this way as well,” says Wilkinson of one of the returnees flourishing under Porter. “Not only have they bought in but they’re enjoying the way that he wants to play.”
Valeri scored Portland’s goal by lashing a blocked shot past Quakes keeper Jon Busch. He’s the catalyst of Porter’s possession style and is meshing nicely with Johnson, whose time at RSL paired him with another Argentine playmaker, Javier Morales. Valeri came to MLS on the recommendation of Morales.
“They’re friends and they’re both very similar,” says Johnson. “Great guys, easy to play with, I mean every time [we] get the ball, Diego just turns and makes a difficult pass that most players in this league can’t make. It’s pretty easy to play with him.
“He wants the ball every time, he never shies away from it. Great guy, great teammate, it’ll be fun for people to get to know him over the course of the season and hopefully for many more after that.”
He expects further improvement as the players and Porter get to know each other as well. “It’s still a bit of a work-in-progress, a lot of new faces and new guys all coming together,” says the Canadian international who has scored three goals, including a great free kick that beat the Quakes at Jeld-Wen Field.
“Caleb’s a good coach. We see eye-to-eye on a lot of the same soccer tactics, a get-the-ball-down, possession-style of soccer. It’s a lot of fun to play, so I love playing for him. His style suits me and suits this group of guys, so we’ll keep working.”