John Spencer sent Eric Brunner a text at 9:45 on Friday night: "A Columbus player is going to kick your ass tomorrow."
Brunner, an Ohio native and expansion-draft castoff of the Crew, never did respond to his coach. Via text, anyway.
Just under 24 hours after Spencer hit SEND, Brunner headed home the lone goal of a 1-0 Portland victory on Saturday night that tested the Timbers' mettle in new ways and put the team's most consistent player center-stage.
Brunner told the scrum of reporters encircling him after the match “I didn’t know how to respond" to Spencer's text. “I kind of just laughed about it,” he said.
Right. Born and raised in the Columbus suburb of Dublin, Brunner starred for Ohio State and played two seasons with the Crew until they left him exposed in the expansion draft and allowed Portland to swoop him into its backfield.
"It's one of those things you can't really script," Brunner said about his night, adding a few more of the right things to say after one does something at work to make their new job better and old employer sore.
And it looked like the realization that he'd just kicked some ass of his own may have sunk in for Brunner in the 82nd minute: While Columbus' Julius James rolled around in the Crew's box in pure soccer-playactor agony, Brunner walked into Columbus' goal, grabbed keeper William Hesmer's water bottle and took an animated swig. Hesmer wasn't amused, and the two got closer than they probably ever did as teammates.
"I didn't mean any disrespect by it, I was just real thirsty," Brunner said. "Unfortunately he didn't have enough water in there to get my thirst."
"It was a funny little moment."
And with it, a funny little message to his former team, and another response to his current coach that didn't require a data plan.
So very much more after the jump, including locker-room interviews with Brunner and Ryan Pore, full uncensored video of Spencer's post-game presser and more thoughts on how it's no fluke Portland's tied for second place in the Western Conference. True story.
A win over Columbus wasn't the Timbers' most refined home performance, but the result was familiar: A third straight 1-0 result and another gently jovial walk around the pitch post-game, battered players clapping hands high toward fans to somehow return the favor.
Soothsayer Spencer predicted Portland's slow start on Friday, when, again speaking to his team through the media's bullhorn, said the Timbers practiced without much pep. "Flat," Spencer said. And for the first 45 minutes of the match, you saw on Saturday what he saw on Friday as Portland came out "very, very flat," flat enough to allow a team who hadn't scored a first-half goal all season to garner some serious early chances. But Spencer, it seemed, had also worked the back-channels, both by shooting Brunner the late-night text but also by telling Jack Jewsbury to spread his wings a bit on free kicks should opportunity arise.
So says the sage one: "I just said to (Jewsbury), 'I think at times, when a coach tells you to do something, you can follow by the book to the T all the time,'" Spencer remembered post-game. "I said to him at halftime, 'Can you use a little bit of your own imagination and forget what the coach says?'
"I said to him, 'Can we slip Kalif (Alhassan) down the side?'
That message turned out to be prophetic ("You guys should've asked me about Doomsday, I would've told you it wasn't going to come," Spencer added jokingly ... I think) and Portland surprised Columbus with a sneaky re-start on a free kick that led to Alhassan's team-high fifth assist, Brunner's 46th-minute goal and a staggered opponent.
Another second-half adjustment that pressed the Crew defense just when Portland scored was Sal Zizzo's substitution for Darlington Nagbe, this time right after half instead of in the 60-minute range. Nagbe's been hampered by a groin injury and shows more comfort over the ball with each match, but it's hard to deny the level Zizzo is playing at.
Snake-bit by injuries for much of his MLS tenure, Portland's healthy version of Zizzo brings a level of energy and another gear that seems to lift everyone in the park (on and off the pitch) with every touch. Portland certainly needs to develop Nagbe (the Timbers' first-ever SuperDraft selection) at match-pace, but a starting lineup with Zizzo feels less likely to come out "flat." No knock on Nagbe here—just recognition that, at this point, Zizzo's the hot hand. Or, rather, hot foot.
And another good problem to have besides talented reserves is the treatment Jorge Perlaza got from the Columbus defense. Yes, he did get knocked around and spent a lot of time tossed about the pitch by a physical Crew, but he was knocked down from behind a number of times, which is often a defense's last-ditch effort to save its keeper from embarrassment. Small, but durable, Perlaza is stretching out one of MLS' smallest pitches, and though he didn't make a mark on the scoreboard Saturday, his quickness in a footrace makes Portland much more dangerous.
Brunner talks about his goal, his night and whether he'd be sending Spencer any texts later:
The USSF Division-2 Golden Boot winner last year for the Timbers, Ryan Pore talks about what it's like to see Portland rise, how his expansion expectations have been shattered and what the team needs to win away from home: Says Pore: "When we're here we have a ton of energy and guys don't think we can lose. We've just got to take that same mentality on the road."
Spencer talks with the media post-match as I attempt to keep the camera steady:
EXTRA TIME! Links to quench your Timbers thirst
• The Crew "showed up a minute late to the second half" and "spent the next 44-plus minutes of the second half bleeding to death," says The Trib's Stephen Alexander, whose notes package has some love for Troy Perkins' clean-sheet performance.
• If the rapture went down last night, it was centrally located to Jeld-Wen Field, says The O's Paul Buker, who comes out swinging in a pinch-hit appearance.
• Ryan Gates of Stumptown Footy offers his re-cap, along with praise for defenders Jeremy Hall and Rodney Wallace.
• The team's official site has a numbers breakdown for post-match digestion, along with quotes and notes from both sides. Says Columbus' Robbie Rogers: "I think that the fans here just have so much passion. Even before the game, when you see them walking out in the city, it’s pretty amazing. It’s somewhere any soccer player would love to play.”
• Brunner's goal was "one of a scant few shining moments for the Timbers," says Jose M. Romero of Soccer by Ives, while Drew Epperley of SB Nation notes the Timbers didn't create many real scoring chances.
• More photos from The O and the Timbers' shooters from Saturday.
• Highlights? OK.
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