MacMath’s Miscalculation Hands Portland Advantage

Written by Ian Thomson
Timbers Army at Jeld-Wen Field's North End (Photo: Ian Thomson)

Portland Timbers swept aside Philadelphia Union at Jeld-Wen Field Monday with a 3-1 win that looked unlikely shortly after half-time.

Philadelphia’s 20-year-old goalkeeper Zac MacMath and his defense remained unbreached after an early spell of Timbers pressure. Peter Novak’s side had started to impose their attacking play on the game and took an early second-half lead through Andrew Jean-Baptiste’s own goal.

That advantage was wiped out three minutes later when MacMath allowed Baptiste’s header to squirm through his hands and under his body. Portland seized the momentum and pummeled MacMath’s goal to eventually run out comfortable winners.

Approach

Successful start for Portland's Boyd/Perlaza partnership

Kris Boyd made his Major League Soccer debut for the Timbers alongside Jorge Perlaza in a 4-4-2 line-up. Head Coach John Spencer also handed a first start to 19-year-old rookie defender Baptiste in place of the injured Futty Danso.

Philadelphia’s new-look side included four off-season arrivals: Costa Rican duo Porfirio Lopez and Josue Martinez filled the left-back and left-wing spots respectively, Panamanian Gabriel Gomez slotted alongside Brian Carroll in center-midfield, and Colombian forward Lionard Pajoy assumed the advanced striker role.

Timbers Start On Front Foot

The hosts started strongly with Lovel Palmer supporting Kalif Alhassan down the right and sending in an early cross for MacMath to deal with. Portland looked keen to test the young goalkeeper’s confidence after his elevation to first-team duties following veteran stopper Faryd Mondragon’s off-season return to Colombia.

An unconvincing tip from MacMath just managed to turn Eric Alexander’s eighth-minute shot beyond his far post after Alhassan had skipped around Lopez.

Philadelphia had another fortunate escape a minute later when Perlaza latched onto Danny Califf’s slip and appeared to be dragged down by the recovering defender inside the penalty area. Referee Baldomero Toledo wasn’t convinced.

Ghanaian winger Alhassan showed a willingness to get on the ball following his successful early duels with Lopez. The 21-year-old also exhibited his ability to dribble inside to link up with Boyd and Perlaza in the final third.

Spencer’s front pair hasn’t had much time to build a relationship given Boyd’s recent arrival from Turkish football. A promising interchange almost led to the opening goal on 20 minutes. Boyd ducked away from a through ball and spun off his marker in anticipation of a return pass from Perlaza. The Colombian’s first-time ball sent Boyd clear, but MacMath arrived smartly to block the former Glasgow Rangers man’s shot.

The Union Strikes Back

Philadelphia's post-Le Toux line-up

An advantage of Novak’s 4-2-3-1 formation is that it allows Philadelphia to get four players forward quickly when his team wins the ball. The Union showed a couple of glimpses of their counter-attacking threat in the first 20 minutes, notably when Martinez drifted to the right to link up with Freddy Adu. Pajoy couldn’t get his head to the former Benfica forward’s cross to complete the move.

Pajoy’s willingness to run into the channels between opposition defenders provides a good outlet for the Union’s full-backs. His 6-foot-1-inch, 185-pound frame allows him to hold the ball up for the three supporting forwards. Another break on 31 minutes should have produced a better outcome for the visitors. Michael Farfan overhit a simple pass to Sheanon Williams inside Portland’s penalty area.

Williams’ athleticism is another key feature of Philadelphia’s play with the 21-year-old right-back showing boundless energy to push forward whenever Adu opens up space on the touchline.

Boyd: More Than A Striker

Boyd’s role in this Portland team is pure and simple – score goals. The Scottish striker is often maligned for his inability to do much else, and his limitations outside of the penalty area didn’t take long to surface. He lost possession in the opening minutes after receiving a flick-on from partner Perlaza, then conceded a throw-in following a heavy touch to control Troy Perkins’ clearance.

It’s too easy to write off Boyd’s contributions outside the box. He dropped into the midfield early in the second half and held the ball up while waiting for support on the left. Alexander arrived to keep the move going and his cross found Alhassan in space at the back post. Carlos Valdes needed to head the ball from his goal line after Alhassan’s deflected shot looped over MacMath.

Baptiste’s Eventful Debut

Few players score a goal and an own goal in the same game. Fewer players score a goal and an own goal in their professional debut. Baptiste accomplished the feat within three second-half minutes.

The unfortunate defender glanced Gomez’s inswinging free-kick past Perkins to give Philadelphia a 51st-minute lead. Baptiste’s willingness to attack Jack Jewsbury’s inswinging free-kick at the other end on 54 minutes resulted in MacMath’s blunder.

Portland Turns The Screw As Novak Concedes Ground

Portland sensed MacMath’s discomfort and peppered the shaken goalkeeper during a five-minute barrage. MacMath fumbled a Rodney Wallace cross on 57 minutes but was close enough to block Diego Chara’s follow-up shot. The overworked youngster punched a couple of corner kicks clear and gathered a couple of efforts from the ever-advancing Wallace as the pressure built.

Novak tried to stem the tide by bringing on Danny Mwanga for Martinez on the hour. Portland refused to back off. MacMath took a knock from Brunner while competing for Jewsbury’s inswinging corner, and the Timbers finally went ahead on 66 minutes through a classic center-forward’s goal from Boyd.

The striker’s determined run across Califf allowed him to meet Alhassan’s right-wing cross at the front post but there was still work to do. Boyd adjusted his neck to plant a firm header into the far corner beyond MacMath’s reach.

Boyd almost doubled his tally on 73 minutes with a header from Jewsbury’s corner that had MacMath beaten. Adu cleared off the line as the Union clung on.

It was Adu’s last act. The American international faded badly on the second half and Novak replaced him with 19-year-old Jack McInerny in another attempt to stem the tide. The flood continued, and Alhassan put the game beyond doubt on 76 minutes.

Jewsbury’s short free-kick to Alhassan caught Philadelphia’s defense off guard. The lively winger skipped around McInerny before floating a cross toward the back post. It didn’t need a touch. The ball sailed into the net over a stranded MacMath.

Conclusion

This wasn’t the clichéd “game of two halves,” but Philadelphia showed alarming brittleness after MacMath’s error. Novak’s team had previously limited Boyd and Perlaza to a single chance and looked dangerous flooding forward on the counter-attack.

Spencer’s Timbers accomplished something they couldn’t do last year by turning around a deficit to collect three points. That resolve is required for Portland to better last year’s 12th-placed finish.