Fans leaving MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday night were surprised by what they just saw. Columbus Crew SC’s 3-1 loss to the Portland Timbers, the Black & Gold’s first home setback of 2019, was one of a number of eyebrow-raising results around Major League Soccer this week, including FC Dallas defeating Atlanta United on the road, Sporting Kansas City getting shellacked by the San Jose Earthquakes and D.C. United dropping a 2-0 result at home to New York City FC.
While the Crew was one of the surprising results on paper, losing to a previously winless Timbers side, the game played out how the Black & Gold expected it would. The Columbus players and staff made it clear heading into the match that Portland was better than the team’s early record, with captain Wil Trapp referring to the opponent as “dangerous” multiple times.
And it certainly was the Timbers who were dangerous on Saturday night, or at least more opportunistic, as head coach Caleb Porter put it.
“I thought their central defenders were excellent, cutting out a lot of crosses,” he said of Portland. “I thought their goalkeeper was very good and I thought they were extremely opportunistic with the few chances that they had. We came out, I thought, very well. We got stunned for the goal on the set piece. I thought then from there we weren’t good for the next 20 minutes. And I really thought that 20 minutes was the only 20 minutes in the game where we weren’t good.”
From the opening whistle, the Crew had control of the contest. The home side once again created a number of chances early but struggled with either the final ball or the finish. Federico Higuain saw his chipped effort go wide after receiving a poor clearance from Timber goalkeeper Jeff Attinella. Gyasi Zardes got on the end of a cross from Pedro Santos but headed his shot wide. Robinho had two efforts from inside the penalty box saved. Jonathan Mensah almost became the latest Columbus center back to score but was off target.
And that was all in the opening 30 minutes of the contest.
But just outside of the initial half an hour, the Crew conceded a free kick which led to Diego Valeri finding Larrys Mabiala at the back post for the finish. It was a goal the team as a whole was not pleased about giving up, especially goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
“I’d say probably nine out of 10 times we save that,” the Black & Gold ‘keeper said postgame. “The one time that you don’t get enough on it and you’re kind of leaning back a little bit, it hits the post and goes in your net... Your reaction time isn’t as quick as normal. Obviously, I need to save that. I need to keep that out and it will keep us 0-0.”
While Porter was pleased with the way his team started the game, creating chances and defending well, he was not happy with the 20-minute period after conceding the goal. It was in that time, just four minutes after the scoring began, that the Crew allowed Portland to open them up and take a 2-0 lead courtesy of a wide-open Jeremy Ebobisse in the middle of the penalty area.
“We have to do better and not concede the second goal, which was from an innocuous situation,” Porter said. “We talked about defending the counter, actually we defended the counter the whole game really well but there were two big moments they had off of simple crosses where Ebobisse got in between our midfielders and our center backs.”
From there, it was about trying to get a goal back for the Crew.
The second half started brightly with the home side dominating the play once again. But by that point, the Timbers were up by two and perfectly happy to let the Black & Gold play in front of them and out wide while controlling the penalty box.
Portland’s center back duo of Bill Tuiloma and Mabiala were the difference. The two defended as well as they have all season, making important tackles, clearing the ball with both their feet and their head and denying Columbus much in the way of dangerous chances in the second half.
The lone Crew goal came on a fortunate situation after Attinella gave the ball away again out of the back and, unlike Higuain in the first half, Santos was able to make him pay with a perfectly placed chip.
“I think to an extent the goal we scored is technically a little bit opportunistic I guess you could say, but that’s not the identity that we want to be about,” Trapp said. “I mean, when you can score goals that way it’s wonderful but I think over the long run what we really want to do is be the dominant team and try to score goals however we can.”
After halving the deficit, the Black & Gold pushed forward, bringing on striker JJ Williams for defender Hector Jimenez. But Columbus was not secure enough at the back. Any hope of a comeback was erased in the first minute of second half stoppage time when the Timbers easily moved through the home team’s backline, finding defender Jorge Moreira free for a finish.
“The third goal, obviously you’re just going to three at the back and going to basically four up top and that happens,” Porter said. “We were looking to obviously pull something out late and I don’t think you can let that third goal take away from some of the positives in the game. And obviously you look at the scoreline and we’ve all been a part of these scorelines and sometimes it doesn’t tell the story of the game.”
For the Crew, there was little surprising about the contest other than the result. The team knew Portland was hungry for a result and hadn’t played up to their talent. The Black & Gold knew they had to be careful of the Timbers’ counter-attack and defended that area well. After that, it was just about finishing chances.
In the end, it was the away side that handled the penalty boxes better, defending well and scoring when the opportunities presented themselves.
“They had four big moments in the entire game and they scored three goals out of four big moments,” Porter said. “We had more half chances and little moments and that’s what the game comes down to.”
Fortunately for Columbus, there is no time to dwell on the defeat as D.C., another team that suffered a “surprising” home defeat over the weekend, comes to town on Wednesday night and the Crew has to turn its attention to that game.
“We had a good meeting today,” Porter said on Monday. “We looked each other in the eyes and talked about the last game and looked at some film and we’re ready. These guys have been locked in and they’ll be ready and we have to move on quickly, obviously. Lots of good in the game, lots of things we need to do better, we have to keep growing, in the final third especially.”