Portland Timbers defense taking pride in shutting down league's biggest names

"We really lock in, we really focus" says W. Johnson about team's defensive efforts

Pa Modou Kah, Timbers vs. LA, 9.29.13

Photo Credit: 
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

BEAVERTON, Ore. – Among the things the Portland Timbers have done well this year, neutralizing star goalscorers will likely be at the top of the list by the end of the season – especially when they happen to come in pairs.

Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan. Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill. Dominic Oduro and Federico Higuain.

None of those players has scored against the Timbers in five combined games. And Portland will go up against another of MLS’ most prolific goalscoring duos Sunday when they play at Cascadia rival Vancouver Whitecaps (5 pm PT; ROOT SPORTS, 750 The Game / La Pantera 940). The 'Caps attacking pair of Camilo Sanvezzo (16) and Kenny Miller (eight) have combined for 24 goals, tied for the most of any two teammates in the league this year.

“Those two guys have produced more goals than Keane and Donovan,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said. “That’s a great thing to tell your guys because now they have the evidence that they can hurt us, just like Keane and Donovan can hurt us.”

Coming off Sunday’s 1-0 victory over the LA Galaxy, when Portland rendered Keane and Donovan harmless for the third time this season, Porter spoke about his team’s ability to take away certain aspects of their opponents’ arsenal.

And the Portland coach obviously has similar respect for Camilo and Miller.

“Obviously they’re different players, their system is different,” Porter said. “But those individual players are talented. They’ve proven to be really dangerous, so we have to play well, just as well or better, defensively if we’re going to shut those guys out.”

Porter has even liked how Portland has matched up against their other Cascadia rivals' goalscoring duo. Between Seattle’s Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins, who each have eight goals, it has only been Johnson who has scored twice. But one of those goals came off a set piece.

So how have Portland managed to come away relatively unscathed against such dangerous competition?

“Just focus,” Timbers captain Will Johnson said. “We really lock in, we really focus. I think we’ve played a lot of our best games against the best teams this year. So we’ve got to know where those two guys are at all times. They’re big-time players, big-time goalscorers; they’ve really carried that team a lot this year.”

The best defensive efforts by the Timbers can be traced to the May acquisition of veteran center back Pa Modou Kah, the presence of longtime Timbers center back Futty Danso and the emergence of second-year defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste. But the team continually stressed that defense is a collective effort with their constant high pressure continuing through their midfield on up to their forwards.

“You’ve got to lock in and know where those guys are at all time,” Johnson said. “And the defensive guys have done a really good job of that.”

Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.