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Portland Timbers Hit Rock Bottom In Honduras

Friday, October 24, 2014


Just when things were going well, the Portland Timbers went down to Honduras to get a slice of respite from an increasingly futile MLS playoff chase and instead ripped the scab off the deep cut that has been the 2014 season.

It was a capitulation. CD Olimpia 3, Portland 1. 

Just like that, the Timbers are out of the CONCACAF Champions League, destroying the last tangible reward of the 2013 Western Conference championship winning season, and harkening back to the ugly days of the summer and fall of 2012.

The Timbers dominated their CCL group, winning their other three group games by a combined score of 14-3. All Portland had to do in Honduras was lose by one goal, and they'd go through. There were even circumstances by which the Timbers could have advanced with a two goal loss - and this over a team that the Timbers waltzed by 4-2 at home a month ago.

Crashing out in the manner the Timbers just did is a crushing blow. It puts 2014 in an entirely new light. Nothing was accomplished this season. No MLS playoffs, most likely, but also no Champions League progression. It's been a lost year. 

If the Timbers had advanced, they would have gone into the quarterfinals next spring - with a new team, a new sense of purpose, and possibly, a new chance to make a real mark in the competition. Instead, Portland won't get the chance to play those knockout round games - which is really where this competition becomes worthwhile anyway.

So, of course, the finger-pointing and the blaming and the Twitter wars started in earnest at full-time, because the mix of the Timbers' biggest fans and their owner has always been a self-righteous, volatile mix. 

But before we go any further, let's make this much clear: The Timbers didn't go out of the Champions League because they didn't care enough about the competition.

Caleb Porter started the team he started because the team he started had shown time and time again in this competition that they could win and win big. 

Porter wasn't taking any chances, either. Liam Ridgewell started for Raushawn McKenzie, and Jorge Villafana was included as well. Portland was, for all intents and purposes, playing with a first-choice back-line and an expensive group of attacking players with more firepower on the bench.

In hindsight, Porter would have started Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, and Diego Chara, but he had a rhythm for his Champions League team, and he couldn't have predicted that they would have come up so woefully short. With a potentially decisive game coming up next weekend in Dallas, Porter played the team he thought would give him the best chance to be successful in both matches. 

Certainly, that faith alone doesn't get Porter off the hook. His team was woefully unprepared to start the game. How else do you - even after conceding a mostly skillfully fortuitous goal - go 2-0 down in the first five minutes?

Of course Olimpia came out on fire. Of course their intensity was high. They were playing a major American team, at home, in front of one of their biggest crowds of the year, for upset advancement in the Champions League.

I think Porter has made great strides this year. He's learned how to deal with adversity, and learned an extra layer of professionalism that was lacking as the Timbers struggled early in the season. But he was exposed in this game. Not because who he picked to play, but how he prepared them to play.

But the players weren't lions either. The defending on the second and third goals was absolutely atrocious. All year, the defense has destroyed the Timbers. 

Recently, at least since the Toronto FC debacle, the defending has improved, but against Olimpia, it was back at its worst. 

Liam Ridgewell is a good player, and an important player for the Timbers. But there's no way he's worth the $1.3 million dollars the Timbers have committed to him, in any league in the world. He's simply not that good. 

Portland threw that money at him because they panicked. They were sitting on an injured Pa Kah, an injured Norberto Paparatto, McKenzie, and Danny O'Rourke midseason, and needed help badly.

I can see why Porter and Gavin Wilkinson were smitten with Ridgewell. He's a great character. With the Timbers, most guys are. But the Timbers need more than Ridgewell, and spending that much money and a valuable DP spot on a center-back was a gamble made in the heat of a bad moment. 

Ridgewell was flat-out bad in this game. And though the Timbers huffed and puffed - and in the case of the Argentine trio of Norberto Paparatto, Gaston Fernandez, and Maxi Urruti, really huffed along with their teammates to the tune of seven acrimonious yellow cards - Portland couldn't pull the bullets out of its feet.

Even Ben Zemanski's blast to pull the score to 2-1 in the second half was lucky, as a major deflection left the Olimpia goalkeeper stranded. Right after Zemanski scored, the tricky Anthony Lozano slid in behind Ridgewell to tap home a cross and make it 3-1 and knock the Timbers out.

It was a painful defeat, not just because of the stakes of the game, but also because it was a tense encounter with water bottles being thrown on the field that was eventually covered by smoke while the game was still being played.

This loss goes up with the Cal FC loss among the most damaging games in Timbers MLS history.

What happened afterward with Merritt Paulson and the Timbers Army on Twitter was embarrassing for everyone involved - and on a day when there had been even more press about the great relationship between the Army and the team. 

I'm not going to rehash incidents that don't deserve rehashing, but it goes without saying that Paulson's tweet was, as usual, unprofessional, distasteful, and just so plainly stupid that you wonder if getting off Twitter - as Paulson has promised to do after this season - will do the team a hell of a lot of good. 

It's been a frustrating and trying year for everyone. A sophomore slump, if you will, in the Caleb Porter era. This was just the final blow. Everyone deserves some blame, from Paulson on down, but the walls of the club are not falling down. The progress in two years under Porter has still been amazing. 

The Timbers will be back and maybe just better than ever next year. Year three is the landmark year of any reign, and year three for Porter should hold big things. The defense will be changed again. Depth at the attacking positions will be added, but at the same time, continuity and sameness in the team should help. This franchise learned a lot this year. 

They've hit rock bottom, the Portland Timbers, and just as the climb towards the incredible 2013 season began when Kris Boyd skied his penalty more than two years ago, the climb back to those heights of 2013 and beyond begins now.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from Abe Asher, check out his page here. To read the rest of our columns, check out our page here.


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