23 and Counting - The amazing run of the 2009 Portland Timbers
Continued from part one
After a disappointing draw at new USL First Division side Cleveland earlier in the year, the Timbers looked ready to squeak through with a 1-0 win over the other new team on the road in Austin, when the ugly head of unusually long stoppage gave Austin the opportunity they needed, and they took advantage with a headed goal to draw level about 2 ½ minutes into stoppage time. But the Timbers immediately responded, as they have shown they can do on multiple chances this year, and Johan Claesson ran straight down the middle of the Austin defense in the last seconds of stoppage and slotted home a game-winner to steal victory from another apparent disappointing draw.
July 25, 2009, PGE Park, Timbers host new EPL side Burnley
Timbers school Burnley, for awhile
For the second time in four years, the Timbers hosted a newly promoted English Premier League side when Burnley FC came to visit. For the first 40 minutes, the Timbers would play perhaps their most dominating stretch of the season, as they completely schooled their English counterparts with quick passing, a huge speed advantage, and an early goal by George Josten put Burnley back on their heels wondering what had hit them. At one point, the Timbers had outshot their EPL opponents 10-1 and it looked to be a total mismatch. As it happened, Burnley pulled back a late goal in the first half very much against the run of play, and as the Timbers went deeper onto their bench in the second half, Burnley responded by putting in more of their top players, and the match would end 2-2 with Burnley winning in penalties. But for most of the first half, it was as fine a display of football as fans at PGE Park have ever seen.
If there has been one source of frustration for the Timbers this year, it’s been their two matches at Minnesota. Earlier this season, a Thunder equalizer that was over a minute past the end of announced stoppage was frustrating enough, but then the Timbers would get a second shot of late disappointment in Minnesota when a 90th minute penalty awarded to the Thunder erased a 1-0 lead, and instead of two wins in Minnesota, they had to settle for two draws and left to brood over the four points dropped. For the Timbers, the late penalty was a slap in the face as the Timbers felt their forwards had been fouled much more severely in the Minnesota box earlier in the match, including two hard fouls on Jason McLaughlin that so enraged the Timbers forward that he responded with a hard retaliatory foul on former Timber Lawrence Olum, which saw the only Timbers ejection on the year as McLaughlin was sent off.
But Timbers coach Gavin Wilkinson later commented that this match had a huge impact on the Timbers as they turned the frustration into focus as they knew they had to get past it, and learn to finish their matches before the 90th minute, to not let a questionable call cost them points in this way.
The Timbers have not dropped a point since.
August 6, 2009, PGE Park, 1-0 over Vancouver
Timbers win the Cascadia Cup for the first time
This one was probably more a landmark for the fans than the players, but with a 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on August 6, the Timbers claimed the Cascadia Cup for the first time. Though Timbers fans weren’t even sure if the Cup would be awarded this year, after the departure of Seattle to a new MLS team, the Timbers did take 2 of 3 from their Cascadia counterparts to finally earn the Cascadia Cup in their sixth try.
Though not a pleasant moment for Timbers fans and players, and certainly not for defender Cameron Knowles, the moment when the big Kiwi broke his leg is one that everyone in the Timbers family will never forget. And though his presence in the center of the backline has been sorely missed, his inspirational presence to Timbers fans and players is still there, and has no doubt become a rallying cry for the Timbers to carry through their 2009 season to a successful conclusion.
August 15, 2009, Marina Auto Stadium, Rochester, New York, 4-1 over Rochester
Timbers win in Rochester for the first time
After six unsuccessful trips to Rochester, which had seen the Timbers earn only a single point, the Timbers could easily have let the loss of Cameron Knowles to injury just three days earlier be too much of a distraction to get the job done, but instead, the Timbers responded by earning their first win in Rochester in dominating fashion with a 4-1 win over the Rhinos. Ironically, the only goal the Timbers gave up on this night was to former Timbers U23 player and Timbers trialist Warren Ukah. Along with an earlier win in Puerto Rico, it was the second of two large monkeys that the Timbers would get off their back, and extended their unbeaten streak to 22 matches.
That “extra gear”
The most recent Timbers win was a 3-1 win over Miami last weekend, in front of the fourth crowd of over 10,000 to see the Timbers at PGE Park in the past two months, and was a good example of one of the most remarkable aspects of the 2009 Portland Timbers. There is a sports cliché about having a “extra gear” that you can shift into whenever you need it, but this year’s Timbers team truly seems to have the ability to raise their play when they need to in order to get that needed goal. In the case of the Miami match, after dominating much of the match, the Timbers only held a 1-0 lead late when Miami suddenly turned one of their few good chances into a 77th minute goal to level the score at 1-1. But like they have done several times this season, the Timbers simply shifted into that “extra gear” and raised their play and four minutes later, they were back in the lead. And in stoppage time, they put in another goal for the 3-1 win.
A record winning streak, or is it?
The win over Miami extended the Timbers unbeaten streak to 23 matches, well past the previous league record of 16 in a row that the Timbers achieved in 2004-05, and shared with Rochester (1998) and Puerto Rico (2008-09). But if the rules of the Timbers 23 game streak are applied to the Rochester streak of 1998, it actually extends the Rochester streak from 16 to 24 matches.
Back in 1997 and 1998, teams played overtime if the scores were level after 90 minutes, and even went to a shootout if still level after overtime as there were no draws allowed. If overtime and shootouts are eliminated, the Rhinos went 24 matches in a row without a loss between August, 1997 and July, 1998, when applying the same standard applied to the 2009 Timbers streak, which means a draw or win in Charleston on Friday would equal that 24 match streak.
It would also mean the Timbers would have a chance to break that streak, on September 3, at home, against, you guessed it, the Rochester Rhinos.
Though the Timbers 2009 season has been impressive, Timbers supporters have been very cautious to call it a success, at least not yet. They have been through this before, though not quite at this level. In 2004 the Timbers won the Commissioner’s Cup as the regular season league champion before getting knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. Then in 2007, the Timbers finished second in the league, and had a chance to advance to the league final, needing only a home win over Atlanta. The Timbers were undefeated at home that year (as they are in 2009) and dominated the Silverbacks for 90 minutes and through overtime, but could not find the back of the net. It was the luck of the shootout that sealed the Timbers fate as they once again fell short.
So now in 2009 the Timbers are likely to win the Commissioner’s Cup again, and that would mean they would need to win only one playoff round to advance to the final series. But after the disappointments of the past, even if they have a Cascadia Cup and Commissioner’s Cup to show for their 2009 season, without finally securing a USL First Division Championship, it’s going to feel like another failed campaign. The Timbers have had their table set to finally seize the ring this year, and the fans have responded as three of the five largest crowds to ever see the USL Timbers play have been in the past two months. Undoubtedly, the fact that the Portland was announced as a Major League Soccer expansion team for 2011 shortly before the start of the season has had an affect on bringing players here who like the prospect of getting a Timbers MLS roster spot in two years, as well as putting more fans in the stands.
Now it’s just a question of doing what has always been the key to winning a football match: It’s all about finishing.
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