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Piquionne and PTFC Reel in Hammerheads in US Open Cup Route

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Frederic Piquionne and fellow members of the Portland Timbers celebrate one of his four goals against the Wilmington Hammerheads during their US Open Cup third round match on May 29, 2013.
Frederic Piquionne and fellow members of the Portland Timbers celebrate one of his four goals against the Wilmington Hammerheads during their US Open Cup third round match on May 29, 2013.

Say the words "US Open Cup" to a Timbers fan and you'll most likely get a mixed review. Just look at what happened last year. But this year's third round match with the Wilmington Hammerheads was quite a success. Winning Wednesday evening 5 goals to 1 was a sign that the team is taking the Open Cup seriously, but more specifically, it was due to two factors on the pitch – a focus on finishing, and a 4 goal break out game from Frederic Piquionne.

Over the past few weeks, PTFC has outshot their competition. In some instances they would have as many as 19 shots to their opponents 11. That's a great number, but when only 4 or 5 are on frame, earning the result you desire is going to be very challenging.

On Wednesday the team sang to a different tune. They were patient, thoughtful and did not waste chances to keep possession. They put purpose behind their actions and it paid off more than most could have imagined at kickoff. 5 goals off of nine shots on frame lifted the team to victory. But that is not all.

At the beginning of the season, many of Portland’s fans were looking forward to seeing how Bright Dike would fit into the new system under Caleb Porter.  At the end of the season it was Dike who became sort of an unsung hero. But 2013 wouldn’t be his year, due to a spring training injury that required season ending surgery.

Frederic Piquionne came out of the blue for a trial, and soon thereafter signed with the team. Some of the faithful in Portland grumbled about it. Like always, there was criticism of his age, his goal scoring record, and what was said of him by former managers or even writers in the UK press. Nevertheless, he was welcomed by many who wanted to keep an open mind.

Up to the Open Cup match, Frederic never really showed the luster of a former European striker. He had played for Lyon of France, one of their best teams in recent history. That alone, regardless of the actual number of goals scored, is impressive. However, he had yet to log the minutes on Portland's top squad that could really gave him enough chances to show what he was worth.

Some may say that his game in DC was poor. And it was inadequate when you compare his performance with fellow forward Jose Valencia (who has also not logged many first team minutes), who scored the equalizer in Vancouver. Simply said, there were many in the Timbers Army doubting that he had what it took. I mean, he is 35 years old, right? He’s a bit too old for this stuff, isn’t he? Nope… not on Wednesday night.

Against Wilmington, Piquionne showed what a man of his stature was capable of. He played like a veteran when he needed to. He was fast when he needed to be. He was clever when it came to making runs. On set plays, he was almost unstoppable.

On his first goal, during the 2nd minute of play, he set the tone for his opponents. Yes, it is safe to assume that the failure of the Hammerheads goalie Troy Hernandez to get into the fray was a part of it. He stayed at home way too long and when he finally ventured out to pressure, the pace on Will Johnson’s corner kick was too fast. After the ball struck Piquionne’s head, it was too low for Hernandez (who also plays for the indoor team known as the Baltimore Blast) to do anything about it.

On the second goal for the Timbers, there was Piquionne again. On this occasion, PTFC controlled the ball with short passes and laid them off to the supporting defenders in proximity to swing the ball around for continued possession. Fortunately for Frederic, Michael Harrington saw him making an attacking run into the box.

Harrington lobbed a pass into the box right in front of the spot, right on target for Piquionne to get some zip behind his headed shot. Again, it was perfectly placed, too low (and too fast) for Hernandez to do anything other than barely get a hand on it.

One of the things praised about Kalif Alhassan by Caleb Porter and past coaches is his vision and ability to make amazingly passes out of almost nothing. But what they didn't mention was his ability to place lobbed passes on a dime. That's what he did on the goal where Piquionne earned his hat trick.

Playing on the left side of the pitch, Kalif accepted a short pass from Piquionne. Frederic immediately attacked the space exposed by the Hammerhead’s defense. His defender tried to get physical but ultimately caved and lost the goal side advantage. Seeing the opening, Kalif lofted a pass over the head of a defender, landing precisely where Piquionne was threading the two men on a run. He put a slight touch on the ball to keep it at his feet. It bounced knee high, and just as it was hitting the pitch; he blasted a half volley towards the far side, past Hernandez who (again) stood little chance to save it.

34 minutes into the match, Piquionne had his hat trick and PTFC was in the driver’s seat. But they did not settle. They did not let up. Though 3 goals is a formidable lead, it is not impossible to overcome, just improbable.

Wilmington looked confused. Could they really be being beaten this badly? Yes, they could. Were they able to get a rhythm that could allow them to play their style? No, not really. Portland was just too good this evening. The short pass play that has become familiar with this team had their opponents forgetting to keep their marks. Players were left wide open on the wings. It was if they had been converted to ball magnets by Porter’s style.

Finally, he players on the field shifted their tactics after directions came out of both coaches boxes. Wilmington turned more aggressive. Portland switched to more of a defensive counter attack style. A corner kick was earned by the Hammerheads. Porter could be seen from the sidelines looking displeased with the defensive efforts of his back line. On the ensuing kick, a Wilmington player got his head square on the ball. Portland keeper Milos Kocic got his body onto it just enough,  but it was close -- too close. Kocic had to rely on his rear end to keep the ball from advancing. Talk about being saved by the seat of your pants!

As stoppage time arrived during the first half, it was evident that both teams had settled on the outcome. Willmington seemed gassed, confused and outmatched.

Portland pressed one more time, and won a free kick on their left hand side of the pitch about midway between the center of the field and the penalty box. Will Johnson sent in a curler with his right foot that was placed perfectly for Piquionne to head in his 4th of the match.

The defenders for the Hammerheads looked frustrated. One of them was scolding his teammates. Indeed there were others to mark on the play, but why Frederic was given space no one knows. What was evident was that Johnson’s pass was spot on, and at its pace, it easily could have beaten any goalkeeper.

Typically, at halftime, teams trot off the pitch to get a much-deserved break and talk tactics. This did occur … unless your names were Futty Danso and Andrew Jean-Baptiste.

Standing in the penalty box in front of the Timbers Army, Porter could be seen quite clearly giving his two center backs a bit of a tongue-lashing. From my vantage point (row three and in the far corner from the event), it was hard to tell what was said. But it is safe to assume that Porter does not care when a teachable moment needs to happen. If it had to be in front of a few thousand lunatics in Timbers Army garb, then so be it.

The looks on their faces showed frustration. However, knowing their place on the totem pole of authority, both of the defenders ran off the pitch with their coach to prepare for the second half. When the break completed, both men were on the pitch. They knew their job, and it was to defend.

Wilmington’s goal at the 60th minute was earned, and it was a magnificent effort by Paul Nicholson. Off of a corner kick, Portland’s Danso botched an attempt at clearing the ball. This set up Nicholson for what can be described as a slow-motion type over head scissor kick, that sort of lobbed the ball over the defense and under the bar to Kocic’s right side. The fact that he set it up for himself and then took the shot on a second touch was brilliant. No one, and I think it is safe to argue no one thought he was going to do that.

Futty Danso scored the 5th goal and final goal for the Timbers in the 72nd minute. Much like his heroic goal against the Seattle Sounders in 2011, this was off a set play and with his head. Instead of being an equalizer, this goal was more or less the final nail in the coffin for the Hammerheads. It was a bit of redemption for his botched clearance, too. but the game was pretty much over by this stage in the match.

Not to discredit the goal, but it was clearly a failure by the man guarding the post. He simply did not make an effort. Perhaps he thought Nicholson was going to make an attempt to clear it. But that was his job, and this final goal was a microcosm for how the Hammerheads game unfolded.

Overall, as Caleb Porter shared during his post match press conference, the Timbers has set a goal of showing that they were the MLS team, but to respect their opponent at the same time. In addition, playing for a trophy was a source of motivation.

When one looks at it from this point of view, though this match wouldn't decide it, this was for the Cup. Portland has said they are in it to win it, and Porter has gone on record as saying he intends to win trophies with this club. The performance this evening was indicative of this belief. Yes, one man did kind of steal the show. However, the pace and flow of the match was too much for Wilmington. Their players were skilled, just not as educated in the style of play they were up against.

This style is different than most MLS teams use at the moment. Some may even argue North America, but I think that is a stretch. One thing is for sure, if the opposition is not ready for a skilled, fast paced attack with an emphasis on possession and short passing, Portland is going to be one tough team to beat.

PTFC have not lost since their second game of the season against Montreal, who happen to have just won the Canadian Championship. Some tried to call this style "Porterball" but it was shrugged off by the coach. At press conferences, he has gone so far as to refuse to even describe how the team prepares.

He may have found a secret, but I am going to take a flying leap with this. Watch Swansea, Barcelona or Ajax and you will see what I am talking about. No, I am not comparing the Timbers to these teams. They are not even on the same playing field. Some may remember the two to nil loss against Ajax when they came to the Rose City. This team is better than the one that played that day, but it was not a top Ajax squad. It may not be what we know as total football, but it's a relative … and it is sure exciting to watch. Who knows what it should be called. Perhaps it’s the right players on the pitch that fit in the system or perhaps it’s the system itself? It is a bit sophisticated and not easy to break down. But I will conclude with these final questions…

Who will finally break this team down? What will it take to beat them? Could it be Frank Klopas and the Chicago Fire? How about the Tampa Bay Rowdies? They did just beat the Seattle Sounders. Or could it be Dallas? That will be a match on the 15th for sure. Or how about this…will Bruce Arena and the LA Galaxy yet again show they are the cream of the crop? The Home Depot center has been like kryptonite for the Timbers.

But there is a reason why they actually play the games. Prediction and hypothesizing are fun, but we soccer fans must remember this key fact: Anything can happen in soccer…anything.