Eric Brunner received another message from his coach this week, but this time, John Spencer didn't need his smartyphone to send it.
Brunner, easily Portland's most consistent defender this season until what Spencer called "a little blip" a month back, rode pine until the 81st minute of the Timbers' Saturday match against Vancouver, entering only when Futty Danso went down with an injury. Then, Brunner—who'd played all 90 minutes of 19 games this season before the starting snub—had a long chat with Spencer during Monday's practice, one that lasted "well past the session's conclusion."
The benching? The talk? Each sent the message clearer than 140 characters ever could. And just like the Columbus game (where the defender and Ohio native scored against his old team after a Spencer employed some text-motivation) Brunner used his head after his coach got into it.
“I wanted to come in and prove that I deserved to be in there,” said Brunner, who scored the lone goal of the Timbers' crucial 1-0 victory over Chivas USA on Wednesday night. With the "triumph" and accompanying three points, Portland (9-12-5, 32 pts) jumps past the Goats (7-9-10, 31 pts) in the standings and now finds itself in a tie with New York (6-14-6, 32 pts) for the 10th and final playoff spot.
Yes, with eight matches remaining, the Timbers are in the thick of it. And once again, a guy who's more than doubled his career goal total this season had the game-winner, as Portland improved to a perfect 4-0-0 when Brunner scored. Spencer may have jokingly said using defender Mike Chabala on corner kicks was a "premonition," but it was Brunner who played soothsayer when Chabala lined one up in the 44th.
"On (David Horst's 32nd minute) chance, I noticed that they left a huge gap in the near post," Brunner said. "So I told Chewy (Chabala) on the next one to look near-post. He hit the ball there and I made the run there and I didn't think it went in. I kind of did a double-take on it."
More thoughts after the jump, plus full video of Spencer's post-match presser and highlights from last night's crucial win before Portland hits the road to face DC United on Saturday.
I noticed Brunner leaving the locker room in what I'll call a "half-huff" on Saturday night, walking with some pace down the House of Pane's basement corridor, eyes fixed straight ahead as the scrum of media moved from Spencer's post-match presser to the locker room.
He didn't exactly look pleased, and I figured at the time it had something to do with him not agreeing with his lost starter status. Brunner declined to get into the specifics of his and Spencer's Monday chat ("Nothing that really needs to be discussed," Brunner said.), but you can venture a guess as to the subjects broached: I'd think one might have revolved around the fact that Portland's banged-up, mistake-prone backline is in no way playoff-caliber without Brunner at his best. Or maybe it had to do with Brunner needing to use better his 6-foot-4 frame to re-ignite some danger to Portland's set pieces. Hell, maybe Spencer spent the powwow naming Chivas USA players who could kick Brunner's ass (worked last time).
Whatever the case, in the 44th minute, Brunner headed home a Chabala corner kick, and the huge spark before half turned out to be the fulcrum after a wild finish that saw a couple of point-blank misses by the Goats. But can this win be a difference-maker in terms of turning Portland's inaugural season into its first MLS postseason?
The Timbers don't return home until Sept. 16, and between now and then face only contenders in the playoff race. Portland travels to face DC United (7-7-10, 31 pts) on Saturday and Philadelphia (8-6-10, 34 pts) on Sept. 10, so although the opportunities for upward mobility are there, Portland remains an unimpressive 1-8-3 away from the friendly confines of Jeld-Wen Field.
Still, Spencer sounded confident as ever after Portland earned its first winning streak since April.
"We've got as good a chance as anybody for the eighth, ninth, and 10th positions," Spencer said. "I don't think we're hanging on for the 10th spot. We've got a couple of good games coming up here at home, and if we perform the way we did in the first half tonight, we'll give teams a good run for their money."
Seems rather assured. And that may not be the worst message for the rest of the team to pick up on.
SPENCER'S FULL POST-MATCH PRESSER:
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!