Timbers soar in MLS home debut

BY foxsports • April 15, 2011

A steady rain and threats of lightning were not about to dampen the mood at Jeld-Wen Field on Thursday night. Not after soccer fans in Portland had waited decades for top-flight soccer to return to a city that had loved the sport so passionately 30 years ago.

That passion never faded, and in fact had grown, which explains how a stadium full of American soccer fans could unleash a display like the one Portland Timbers fans gave on Thursday.

The Timbers responded with their own impressive first home performance, scoring four goals on their way to a 4-2 romp over the Chicago Fire. It was Portland's first MLS victory, and first real evidence that the Timbers expansion season may not be another exercise in first-year MLS futility.

Portland rode the impressive performances of so many, including Colombian striker Jorge Perlaza, a speedy and dangerous goal-scorer who could serve as the perfect complement to Kenny Cooper. Then you had young goalkeeper Jake Gleeson, who has beaten out some more experienced and accomplished goalkeepers to emerge as the Timbers starter. Then you have big Ghanaian defender Mamadou "Futty" Danso, who made his MLS debut last night and promptly showed he is capable of being a rock in a central defense that needed some stability.

It was clear from the start of Thursday's match that Portland would have a boost from the home crowd, but the rainy and windy weather conditions also suited the more physical Timbers against the more finesse-minded Chicago Fire.

It wasn't just the weather that led to Portland's four goals. Some shaky Fire defending and promising combination play between Cooper and Perlaza helped the home team gain the advantage early on. Cooper's size and technical ability makes him tough to take off the ball, while Perlaza's speedy runs can take advantage of the space Cooper opens up.

As good as Portland's offense was, the Timbers attack could be even scarier in the coming weeks as rookie first-round pick Darlington Nagbe gets back to full fitness and newly-acquired Colombian playmaker Diego Chara is integrated into the team. Portland head coach John Spencer will have his hands full trying to find minutes for an impressive collection of attacking weapons.

As for Chicago, the Fire could take the loss as a setback in the most unforgiving of settings, but the Fire had its share of blame in the defeat. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson was extremely shaky in goal, gifting Perlaza his second goal with an awful spill that reminded us that, for all the talent Johnson showed in 2010, he's still a very young goalkeeper with plenty to learn.

Perhaps more troubling for Chicago was the play of the defense, which was overrun for a second straight match. The Fire back-line was supposed to be a team strength, but has now surrendered six goals in two matches. Head coach Carlos De Los Cobos has some talent in defense, but team organization defensively, both on set pieces and in the run of play, has been shaky.

Chicago doesn't have much time to regroup, not with a match-up against the Los Angeles Galaxy awaiting on Sunday. The Fire did get a bit lucky because Galaxy midfielders David Beckham and Juninho are set to miss the match due to suspensions, and Landon Donovan remains a question mark with a knee injury. The match-up is made for a Fire rebound, but another loss would mean three straight and suddenly all those pre-season rumblings about head coach Carlos De Los Cobos and his future with the team will resurface.

Portland doesn't have such worries. The expansion side is expected to have its share of growing pains, but Thursday's victory, and the displays both on and off the field, bode well for a franchise that had to be looking to make a strong entrance into MLS just two years after arch-rival Seattle stormed into the league. We're just a month into the Timber era, but Thursday night's display was an unforgettable one and the perfect way to christen a stadium that is going to be a tough place for any team to visit.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.