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Earthquakes stumble in Portland, hold on to top spot in MLS standings

Timbers teammates Futty Danso and Jack Jewsbury celebrate creating the match-winning goal in a 2-1 victory over the Earthquakes.
Timbers teammates Futty Danso and Jack Jewsbury celebrate creating the match-winning goal in a 2-1 victory over the Earthquakes.

The San Jose Earthquakes lost to the Portland Timbers on Tuesday night by a score of 2-1, snapping their three game MLS winning streak but not knocking them from the top of the MLS standings at the midway point of the season. An excellent counterattacking goal by Danny Mwanga in the first half and a fortuitous free kick follow-up from Jack Jewsbury staked the home side Timbers to a two goal lead that, despite another late goal from Alan Gordon, were unable to overturn the deficit to get a result on the road.

It’s only the fourth time this season that the Earthquakes have trailed following the final whistle. In eight games previously, the Earthquakes have been able to overcome being behind on the scoreboard to either win (five times) or draw (three times). For one night, at least, in the state where they reside in the movie that bears their name, the Goonies did indeed "die."

The match was labeled by some prior to kick-off as a proverbial "trap game" for the Earthquakes — two teams moving in opposite directions but playing on an unconventional evening — but instead proved the MLS axiom that any given team can rise to the occasion in any given game. Parity was on display from the opening kick-off, as head coach Frank Yallop kept two of his most important players in Steven Lenhart and Marvin Chavez on the bench, and the Timbers at times feasted on the somewhat weakened visitors.

Playing to their narrow pitch — only 70 yards across — the Timbers collapsed into the center of the field and made life difficult for Earthquakes midfielders Khari Stephenson and Sam Cronin. Unable to link the ball from side to side, San Jose instead tried their luck up the flanks. However, a combination of inconsistent play from Rafael Baca and Shea Salinas on the wings, the former away from is natural position in the center and the latter in his first MLS start since returned from a broken clavicle suffered in April, and a fast synthetic turf field to which they are unaccustomed prevented the Earthquakes from exploiting space on the sidelines. Forwards Gordon and Chris Wondolowski could make little impact on the proceedings without the usual good movement and passing the Earthquakes had displayed in their run to the top of the MLS Western Conference heap.

Meanwhile, the Timbers weren’t exactly lighting it up on offense in the early going, but they were being aggressive enough to dominate most possession statistics. Portland’s opening goal was a thing of beauty, but actually came as a result of poor set-piece play by the Earthquakes and the individual hustle of Timbers midfielder Franck Songo’o. With Baca in possession of the ball deep in the left attacking third following a poorly executed corner kick, Songo’o pickpocketed the Earthquakes midfielder and started racing toward the Timbers Army end of Jeld-Wen Field.

The Earthquakes were playing forward in advanced numbers, and Songo’o was smart to puch the action following the turnover. A smart give-and-go with Eric Alexander in the middle freed Songo’o space to run unimpeded — something coach Yallop mentioned after the game should never have been allowed to happen — toward the San Jose byline. A square ball back through the area was met by Mwanga, just as he stepped in front of the under-aggressive Steven Beitashour, and easily shot past David Bingham for the goal. If you want to illustrate to anyone how to run the perfect counterattack in soccer, refer them to the following video:

The Timbers second goal came in the second half after still wet-behind-the-ears goalkeeper David Bingham made a crucial mistake on a Portland free kick. With the ball floating into the area, Bingham, already in an advanced position given his proclivity to play off his line, reached to make the grab. At that same instant defender Futty Danso stuck his head into the Bingham’s arms and forced the ball loose. Jewsbury was the first player to reach the bounding ball, and he slid it into the empty net.

Whether or not the contact from Futty deserved a foul call is up for debate, but what is irrefutable is that Bingham needed to be more committed to making the catch instead of extending his arms dangerously away from his body. While most referee’s would have whistled the play dead — contact with the ‘keeper usually ensures that — this time the play was left to stand, and the Earthquakes found themselves down a pair of goals with just under a half-hour to play.

Coach Yallop did introduce Lenhart and Chavez into the game at that point, and the pair made a big difference in helping the visitors claw one back, but the damage had been done by giving up the two Timbers goals and the Earthquakes could not complete yet another stirring comeback. While Gordon did score his career best sixth goal of the season, another goal was not in the cards — not even from goal-a-game hero Wondolowski — and the Earthquakes slumped to only their third road loss of the season. Coach Yallop mentioned after the game that Chavez won’t be available to play every game, so night’s like Tuesday will occasionally befall the Earthquakes. Come August, when San Jose’s schedule reverts more to the one-game-a-week norm, Chavez will likely miss less minutes and the team can keep the continuity of style that the Honduran brings to the offense.

Up next for the Earthquakes is a visit to conference cellar-dwellers FC Dallas this Saturday night. With Chavez somewhat rested and with a chance to face his former team, expect to see a lot more of the speedy winger, and perhaps, behind his play, a return to the Earthquakes winning ways.