brunner1.jpg
Brunner's goal celebration won't happen this week.
The soccer gods haven't been kind to the Portland Timbers in their second Major League Soccer season, although

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Underachieving Timbers Look for Redemption as Sounders Bring Six-Match Skid to Portland

brunner1.jpg
Brunner's goal celebration won't happen this week.
The soccer gods haven't been kind to the Portland Timbers in their second Major League Soccer season, although most of their wounds have been self-inflicted.

The Timbers--and their rabid fan base--expected to contend for a place in the playoffs after an encouraging first season that saw them stay in the hunt until the final week. But they look up this morning from the bottom of the Western Conference at Vancouver and Seattle, whose success this year has relegated Portland to a poor third in the Northwest's pecking order.

Their shot at redemption comes Sunday when they host Sounders FC at Jeld-Wen Field in the second Cascadia Cup match for both teams, televised nationally on ESPN at 2 p.m.

Portland's problems start with a surprisingly anemic offense, but they don't end there. The Timbers have averaged less than a goal per match, been shut out five times, and scored more than once just three times. It wasn't supposed to be this way after owner Merritt Paulson ponied up $1.25 million for Kris Boyd, the leading scorer in Scottish Premier League history, in the offseason. His goals have been artful and skillful; they just haven't been plentiful, as Boyd, a starter for all 13 matches, has found the back of the net only four times, just once in a victory. He hasn't had much help--Liberian midfielder Darlington Nagbe, with three, is the only other Timbers player with more than one goal.

Meanwhile, Kenny Cooper has 11 goals--tied for the MLS lead--for New York after Portland traded him to the Red Bulls to make room for Boyd. After three months of frustration, Timbers management made a move to address the scoring drought three weeks ago, sending Colombian forward Jorge Perlaza, scoreless in 10 matches this year, to Philadelphia for 20-year-old Danny Mwanga, a Congolese forward who played for Portland's Jefferson High School before starring at Oregon State. Mwanga was scoreless in nine matches for the Union after combining for 12 goals in the previous two seasons.

Sounders fans will see a very familiar face in Michael Fucito, who scored 10 goals in two seasons for Seattle, went to Montreal in the Eddie Johnson deal, than was obtained by Portland two months ago. Scoreless in three matches as a Timber, all coming off the bench, he'd no doubt love to break through against his former side.

Until Sunday's 1-0 loss to the Galaxy--Portland's second defeat in Carson, Calif., in a little over two months--the Timbers were on a "hot streak," with a win and three draws in four May matches. They've played respectably at home, winning three of seven with two draws, and scoring eight of their 12 goals, with opponents' own goals providing the margin of victory in two of the wins. They displayed their potential in April with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City, the East's second-best team.

The Timbers' ultimate undoing has been a defense--solid through the middle with Eric Brunner and Colombian Hanyer Mosquera, each with 10 starts--that hasn't given up an excessive number of goals, but has suffered critical breakdowns at the worst possible times. Portland's opponents have scored half of their goals in the 78th minute or later: the Timbers are 0-4-1 in those matches. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory back in March against Real Salt Lake, squandering Nagbe's two goals, losing a 2-1 lead in second-half stoppage time, and falling 3-2, sending a sellout crowd of 20,438 at Jeld-Wen home in a state of shock.

Mosquera will miss this match, as well as Portland's next two: he struck Galaxy forward Jack McBean in the the face late in Sunday's loss to L.A. and today received a three-match suspension for violent conduct. Brunner's out as well, with lingering effects from a concussion, so Futty Danso, who headed in the tying goal last year in Seattle, and David Horst will man the middle.

Other than Nagbe, there's been a remarkable lack of production from an midfield capable of much more: Ghanian Kalif Alhassan and Cameroon's Franck Songo'o--also a veteran of the English Premier League and Spain's La Liga--have played for their national teams, and Jack Jewsbury has carved out a respectable 10-year MLS career, mostly with Kansas City. But the trio, in a combined 29 appearances this season, has just one goal--Alhassan's game-clincher against Philly, all the way back in the season opener--and more yellow cards (four) than assists (three).

This year's Timbers are a group of players with impressive individual talents who have not yet figured out a way to play consistently as a team. It's the job of second-year coach John Spencer to get them there; if he can't, there may not be a third year. Spencer is a sawed-off Scot, prickly and profane; his squad hasn't reflected the determination and grit he displayed in his 17 seasons as a player in Scotland, England, and the U.S.

Teams ultimately show what they're made of on the road, contending with hostile environments, and the Timbers simply haven't gotten it done, with four losses and two draws in their six matches away from Jeld-Wen. This is also a team that, a little over three weeks ago, lost a U.S. Open Cup third-round match at home to Cal FC, an amateur club from Ventura County, Calif., that has a losing record in its Oxnard-based league.

The Sounders have their own problems: They're now winless in six matches (0-3-3), their longest run of futility since a five-draw, one-loss stretch in May and June of 2009, and haven't won since May 9. There's been just three full days of rest and recovery for players still sore and bruised after absorbing 18 fouls in Wednesday night's emotionally draining 1-1 draw with not-so-Sporting Kansas City, whose center back Aurélien Collin made a mockery of the game with his overly physical, borderline-dirty play, all but daring the officiating crew to give him a second yellow card after picking one up in the 17th minute.

They backed down, let this match completely get away from them--perhaps they simply didn't think believe that players wearing baby-blue kit were capable of such egregious behavior--and saw it deteriorate into chaos in the final minutes. Given the enjoyment he seems to take in belting opponents, Collin should give serious thought to trying out for another Kansas City team--the Chiefs--after the MLS season comes to an end.

Unfortunately for Seattle, the night's only red card went to midfielder Alvaro Fernandez, who lasted just nine minutes after coming on as a late substitute, unable to resist retaliating after Roger Espinoza's dangerous tackle from behind escaped the notice of officials. Fernandez will miss this match, but his absence is mitigated by the presence of Alex Caskey, who started in Fernandez's traditional spot on the left, seems to improve with every outing, and is emerging not only as the Sounders' top rookie, but one of the league's best first-year players.

Sigi Schmid shook up his midfield against KC's 4-3-3 formation, moving Mauro Rosales from the right to an attacking position at the top of the diamond and installing Caskey and Brad Evans on the wings, with Ozzie Alonso holding it all together and providing cover in back. Sending his top creator farther upfield produced dividends and resulted in the lone goal in the 15th minute, when Rosales' well-placed free kick was hammered home on a picture-perfect volley by Patrick Ianni, his first goal of the year.

Ianni, returning after missing more than a month with lower-back pain, was solid at both ends, filling in for the suspended Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and teaming with Jeff Parke in the center as a defense that was shredded four days earlier in Montreal held Sporting KC to just four shots on goal.

Parke and Ianni--along with outside backs Zach Scott and Marc Burch--were operating in front of a new keeper, as Andrew Weber made his Sounders debut, replacing rookie Bryan Meredith, who had made the previous seven starts. KC's lone goal wasn't Weber's fault--Jacob Peterson's eighth-minute volley was deflected into the top corner past Weber, who was screened on the play. Weber didn't let the early goal get him down, and he was quick, active, and aggressive throughout.

The other major development on Wednesday was the return of Steve Zakuani to the 18, the talented midfielder's first time on an active game roster since he last played on April 22, 2011, the night he was scythed down by Colorado's Brian Mullan and suffered severe damage to his right leg, including a broken tibia and fibula. Zakuani's rehabilitation and recovery has been slow and painful, but it's now nearly complete.

He didn't come on as a substitute; it would have been insane to put him on the field, given the way the clowns masquerading as officials were calling--or not calling--the action. But the mere sight of Zakuani, long a fan favorite, on the sidelines put a charge into the crowd of 46,932, the season's largest. His return to the lineup is now just a matter of time. The Sounders' next home match--July 7 against Mullan and the Rapids--sounds about right.

The Sounders have the advantage in this rivalry, taking four points off Portland last year in capturing the Cascadia Cup. The teams battled to a soggy, ill-tempered 1-1 draw in Seattle last May before the Sounders came to Portland in July and rallied from a 2-1 deficit to defeat the Timbers 3-2, as Fredy Montero scored twice and Alonso's penalty kick in the 83rd minute was the game-winner. All five goals were scored in a frantic second half:

This is the first of three meetings between the I-5 rivals this season: The Sounders return on September 15 before Portland comes north on October 7. This year's Cascadia Cup schedule is unbalanced, as Portland has four matches at home--hosting Vancouver and Seattle twice--the Whitecaps three, and the Sounders just two.

A troubling recent trend for the Sounders bodes well for the Timbers: Seattle--which yielded just three goals in its first nine matches--has given up the first goal in its past six, winning none of them. Portland has scored the first goal only four times in 13 matches this season, winning twice.

 
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