Analysis

Timbers 3, Sporting KC 0: Valeri strikes; Portland prevails in 10-v-10 rematch

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Farley analyzes the Timbers' 3-0 win over Sporting KC, a result which is misleading on many fronts.

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PORTLAND, Ore. – A match defined by two first-half red cards broke the same way so many Portland Timbers matches do – at the feet of Diego Valeri. Volleying home his 10th goal of the season in the 65th minute, the Timbers’ star put his side ahead en route to a 3-0 victory, with Jack Jewsbury and Fanendo Adi’s late insurance helping to snap the two-game winning streak Sporting Kansas City carried into Providence Park.

The second-half goals, however, were almost coda to two dismissals that came out of nowhere in the first 40 minutes. Scuffling with Sporting KC’s Benny Feilhaber in the 12th minute, Portland’s Diego Chara was shown straight red when his shove found his opponent’s face. Twenty-seven minutes later, an NFL-style takedown in midfield by Sporting’s Soni Mustivar not only stopped a Portland counterattack but leveled the sides at 10 men, with Baldomero Toledo levying the dismissal.

Having survived its first-half disadvantage, the Timbers made Sporting pay 21 minutes into the second, with an attack built down its left finding Valeri unmarked in the middle of the penalty box. A perfectly hit ball off the bounce alluded Alec Kann to temporarily tie Fanendo Adi for Portland’s goal-scoring lead, again leaving Valeri as the Timber’s hero.

Late, Jewsbury buried a ball into the right side of Kann’s goal after Darlington Nagbe dribbled around the left side of Sporting’s defense, leaving Benny Feilhaber prone at the edge of the six-yard box before his lay-off to the former Kansas City Wizard buried Jewsbury’s former club.

In stoppage time, Adi found himself alone on the ball near the penalty spot, with his finish also into the right side of Kann’s goal giving the final scoring a superficially lopsided feel. The goal, Adi’s 11th on the year, also reclaimed his club’s lead from Valeri.

The victory moved Portland above the red line in MLS’ tough Western Conference, passing rival Vancouver for sixth place. Two points above the Timbers, Sporting sits in fifth place, one spot lower than it rested two days ago.

Here are three things from Sunday afternoon’s match in Portland:

You get a red card, and you get a red card

Even before Diego Chara’s 12th-minute red card, the game was being played on Sporting KC’s terms, but once Portland’s destroyer was dismissed, the Timbers gave up all pretense of control. Jack McInerney, starting up top of Portland’s 4-4-2 formation, dropped back to left wing, Darlington Nagbe moved inside, and the hopes Caleb Porter had of attacking a Matt Besler-, Nuno Cuelho-less defense faded into a game of 10-on-11.

Over the next 27 minutes, Sporting completed 175 passes to Portland’s 29, showing the patience of a team that expected nearly a full day of man-up soccer. As halftime approached, that edge had only produced two shots, but there was every reason to think the visitors would have 45 more minutes to up their intensity.

Then Mustivar happened. It was the one thing Sporting could do to let the Timbers back into the game, yet there it was, in the 39th minute, a player doing his best Luke Kuechly impression in a sport that frowns on a middle linebacker’s ethos. By going full speed into Valeri, Mustivar turned the routine breakup of an opposing counterattack into something closer to an NFL-style open-field tackle. It may not have been malicious, but with the referee perhaps looking to even up the numbers, it sure was dumb.

Some refs give the defender the benefit of the doubt in that situation. They know the player probably isn’t trying to send a message. They just want to stop a counter. Still, when two players are at full speed and you decide stopping an attack is more important than player safety, the referee has to step in. Baldomero Toldeo stepped in with a red card. 

Diego Valeri, of course

One theme we’ve dwelled on recently is Portland’s dependence on Valeri. The last three games have been a convenient example. Three weeks ago against Seattle, Valeri had a goal and an assist as the Timbers beat their arch rivals, 3-1. Since, Valeri’s been shut down, with the Galaxy and Sporting (last week) containing the Timbers’ maestro while holding his time to one beyond-the-box goal.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason Caleb Porter switched things up on Sunday, going to a 4-4-2 that took Valeri out of the middle, starting him wide right. Practically, that gave Valeri the freedom to probe space while coming in from the flank, with right back Alvas Powell charged with occupying the entire flank while the Timbers built play.

When Chara went off, that plan went out the window, but in the second half, Valeri still managed to make his mark. One-timing a cross from left back Vytas Andriuskevicius, Valeri delivered a shot only a clairvoyant could stop, the curve on his volley bringing the ball back inside Kann’s right post before the Sporting keeper had time to lift off.

Three weeks ago, Porter was nonchalant about whether his team was too dependent on his star. When he’s healthy, Porter explained, Portland has no problems. As the last two weeks have shown, though, even when Valeri is available, the Timbers might need a Plan B. Against LA and at Sporting, they never found one. At home on Sunday, they didn’t need one.

Can’t read too much into the result

Soccer is the rare sport that can shift the proverbial playing field at any moment by sending a man off. When that happens, the game no longer has much analytical value; when a second player’s sent off, even less so.

Coming off three straight disappointing performances (counting Wednesday’s CONCACAF Champions League result), Portland will be thrilled to get back into the win column, but whether its problems at the back are solved is uncertain. The team got two late goals from non-Valeri sources, but the game was fundamentally different than what it will see next week at D.C. United.

For Sporting, seeing a two-game winning streak snapped is disappointing, but in its previous eight, far more normal games, the team collected 15 points. Any talk of faults that emerged on Sunday will likely overlook the fact that in regular games – in situations the team is likely to face a dominant amount of the time – Sporting looks improved on the team we saw in April and May.

Games played on the power play or with both sides hamstrung are entertaining. Sunday’s last 30 minutes reminded us of that. They’re just not very valuable when you’re assessing how a team will perform going forward.

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Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.