Midweek matches are tough on both players and fans. Sporting's visit to Portland last night was outside of the regular rhythm and routine, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Sporting got a point from the goalless draw, which is a welcome result after losing three straight matches. Detractors will find plenty to complain about. The Nemeth-less attack wasn't exactly remotely scintillating. While the midfield looked much better thanks to the return of Mustivar, it still sorely missed Roger Espinoza. Nagumura is a nice backup for Roger, but Naga never had the skills of Roger in the final third, and now the Brazilian's legs are showing age and miles. Overall, the Sporting lineup, which was scary-athletic just a couple of seasons ago, looked rather pedestrian against the Timbers' big, strong, fast squad. Sporting still managed to stop their tailspin and earn a draw, though, and that was enough for a Wednesday match.
The best indication of Sporting's progress in righting the ship is that Tim Melia was able to stand on his head in goal to preserve the clean sheet. Yeah, I would prefer that our keeper not have to make a series of spectacular saves to preserve a draw, but over the three prior losses the shots were coming from places where even the spectacular save wasn't possible. Relying on your goalkeeper to be brilliant isn't a good strategy going forward, but at least Sporting (and particularly Mustivar) channeled the Portland attack into places that gave Melia a chance at the save. That's a step in the right direction against an admittedly talented Portland side.
The performances of the past two months notwithstanding, Peter Vermes has always been a defense-first kind of coach. Scoring goals in bucketfuls was kind of fun at times this season, but PV has never been the kind of coach to plan on winning 4-3 instead of 1-0. With the playoffs drawing near, I can't imagine that Vermes has a higher priority for his team than locking down the defensive. In the Sporting system, defense involves the entire squad, which is a big reason why Dom Dwyer is going to start every match he's healthy whether he's scoring goals or not (Dom defends like a madman from his center forward position) and is also a big reason why Dom isn't going to get many looks at goal in what will likely be a defensive mindset down the stretch. That's okay. That's how you advance through the MLS playoffs.
Sporting's performance last night wasn't pretty soccer. It certainly wasn't good enough to win a trophy. It was good enough to get a point on the road, and that's progress.
On to Orlando for Sunday. Go, Sporting!