Portland Timbers’ Head Coach John Spencer knows how to play the Houston Dynamo better than any of his Major League Soccer counterparts. That showed Tuesday as Portland picked up its first road point of the year with a 0-0 tie at BBVA Compass Stadium.
The Dynamo dominated possession, particularly as Portland wilted late in the second half, but Timbers’ goalkeeper Troy Perkins made three vital saves to keep Houston at bay.
Portland have now registered three shutouts in their past four games. Conversely, they’ve only scored once during that spell – an own goal by Sporting Kansas City’s Chance Myers in the 1-0 win on April 21.
This was Houston’s third game in seven days following last Wednesday’s trip to New York Red Bulls and Saturday’s home opener against D.C. United. Head Coach Dominic Kinnear made four changes from the weekend. Corey Ashe returned at left-back in place of Andre Hainault, Luiz Camargo and Nathan Sturgis replaced Adam Moffat and Je-Vaughn Watson in central midfield, and Macoumba Kandji started up front instead of captain Brian Ching.
Spencer, who spent almost five seasons as Kinnear’s assistant in Houston, matched his former side’s 4-4-2 line-up. Recent signing Steven Smith replaced former Dynamo Mike Chabala at left-back in the only change from Portland’s 0-0 tie with Columbus Crew on May 5.
Timbers Shut Down Davis’ Threat
Brad Davis, Houston’s team MVP in the past three seasons, fittingly earned the Dynamo’s first win in their new surroundings Saturday with a blistering 25-yard drive into the top corner of D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s net.
The St. Louis native wasted no time in testing out Jack Jewsbury, his former teammate at St. Louis University, skipping by the Timbers’ captain in the second minute to curl in a cross that Perkins gathered at the back post.
Davis remained wide in the first half-hour, but Houston didn’t press enough men forward to provide outlets for their main playmaker. Portland defended compactly with their back four well organized to deal with Kandji and Will Bruin, while Spencer’s midfield matched the movement of Davis, Camargo and Calen Carr. Subsequently, Houston’s moves petered out when their five or six attackers met an impenetrable eight-man wall of resistance built around the Timbers’ penalty area.
The same was true at the other end when Portland probed forward into Houston’s half, though a counter-attack on 22 minutes gave the visitors space to exploit. Diego Chara picked up a loose ball after Hanyer Mosquera stripped it from Davis 30 yards from Portland’s goal. The Colombian midfielder surged into Houston’s half before finding Darlington Nagbe, who in turn released Franck Songo’o on the right flank. Songo’o tricked his way around Ashe before firing in a cross that just evaded Kris Boyd’s near-post run.
That was one of few opportunities created in the first half as both teams slugged it out in a gridlocked midfield. Davis began drifting centrally to try to influence the game. His presence only added to the congestion, and Chara was never far away to shut him down when he received the ball.
The pattern continued early in the second half. Portland again created the best opportunity with a quick counter on 47 minutes when Chara carried the ball toward Houston’s undermanned defense. Boyd’s diagonal run to the right dragged Taylor with him and opened space down the left for Chara to slide in Rodney Wallace. Carr recovered speedily to block the shot after Wallace’s slight hesitation.
Pressure Builds On Timbers’ Back Line
Spencer was forced into replacing the injured Jewsbury with Chabala at half-time. He made his two other changes by the 69th minute to freshen his midfield’s ability to carry the ball away from Portland’s goal. Sal Zizzo and Eric Alexander came on for Wallace and Songo’o respectively.
The Timbers remained comfortable defensively as Houston’s midfield sat behind the ball rather than gambling with forward runs. That finally changed on 67 minutes when Camargo broke into the box and forced Perkins into his first big save of the night. Jermaine Taylor and Carr combined down the right with the latter sliding a pass beyond Portland’s defense into Camargo’s stride. Perkins closed down the Brazilian’s shooting angle and blocked the shot with his legs.
Ching had replaced Bruin by then, and Kinnear brought on Colin Clark and Alex Dixon for Kandji and Davis as Houston began to put the visitors on the back foot.
Carr nudged Geoff Cameron’s long ball beyond Mamadou Danso on 82 minutes and looked set to race clear on Perkins’ goal. The Gambian defender sent Carr sprawling with a last-ditch challenge that brought the crowd to their feet in expectation of a red card. On closer inspection, Danso’s right toe had redirected the ball out of Carr’s path before his momentum took out the Dynamo forward.
Perkins Shuts The Door On Houston
Boyd and Nagbe were virtual spectators in the closing 10 minutes as Houston piled forward and Portland retreated into their own penalty area. Perkins pulled off his second critical save on 87 minutes to deny Carr after Ching caught Alexander trying to dribble out of the Timbers’ defensive third. Camargo sent Carr through one-on-one against Perkins, but he shot straight at the advancing goalkeeper’s chest when he could have stepped around him.
Ching launched Clark’s cutback high into the night sky in the final minute before Cameron headed the substitute’s corner over the bar in the third minute of stoppage time.
Perkins still had work to do. Dixon cut into the penalty area from the left wing and fired a swerving, dipping shot on frame that the goalkeeper grabbed at the second attempt as Clark closed in.
“When we don’t hurt ourselves then it’s difficult to beat us,” Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall said to the media after the game. This was Houston’s second straight shutout at BBVA Compass Stadium after defensive errors caused their downfall at New York and D.C. United.
Kinnear needs to find more of an offensive threat from midfield, particularly when the opposition effectively shuts down Davis. Houston have averaged less than a goal a game so far this year, and only three teams have found the net on fewer occasions.
The same can be said for Portland, who’ve scored just nine times in 10 games.