By JOEL HOOVER
There was lighting at halftime. There were fireworks afterward. The only thing lacking flash at PPL Park was the scoreboard.
Thanks to some firm defending and outstanding saves by opposing goalkeepers Donovan Ricketts and Zac MacMath, the Portland Timbers and Philadelphia Union played to a 0-0 draw Saturday night in a match disrupted by a lightning delay at halftime.
While MacMath made some solid saves, Ricketts was the true star of the night, making four saves to help preserve the shutout for the visiting Timbers.
Philadelphia’s Leo Fernandes had the best chance to break the deadlock in the 88th minute. After a scramble in the Portland box from a Union corner, the clearance found Fernandes for a shot on the edge of the area, but his effort scraped the far post and went wide.
The draw was the Timbers’ eighth on the road this season in 11 road matches, and their league-leading 10th overall. The result also kept the Union unbeaten in their last six league matches at home.
“They’re a very mobile group…difficult to play against,” Union assistant manager Rob Vartughian said of the Timbers afterward in place of manager John Hackworth, who was suspended following his dismissal last week against Chivas USA. “The first half we chased the game a little bit more than we would have liked to.”
The opening 45 was a tight and somewhat chippy affair. Portland’s midfield dominated the possession and run of play, but Philadelphia’s physicality and counter-attack brought them into the game as the half wore on. Such a tight half kept chances few and far between for both sides.
Despite the lack of chances, both teams had at least one quality opportunity in the first half. Portland’s Ryan Johnson worked an opportunity in the box off a counter from Diego Valeri in the 24th minute, but saw his effort kicked away by MacMath. At the other end, Danny Cruz’s quick run and shot down the left in the 36th minute drew a fine diving save from Ricketts.
“He was very good again tonight,” Cruz said regarding the Timbers’ keeper, echoing recent comments by Los Angeles Galaxy manager Bruce Arena that Ricketts has been Portland’s best player this season. “He made some big saves as he always does…credit to (Portland), they’re a good team.”
Both teams saw their halftime extended to 50 minutes as a lightning storm swept through Chester during the intermission. Both teams resumed second half play amidst several flashes to the south and east of PPL Park.
“I think it actually helped us,” MacMath said of the delay. “It gave us a little time to get some rest, get our legs up a little bit, and re-energize for the second half.”
The second half saw the game open up within the midfield, but both teams continued to struggle in breaking down the opposition defenses and goalkeepers. Valeri fashioned a chance on the turn within the Union box in the 55th minute, only to see MacMath parry it away at close range. In the 72nd minute, Conor Casey had a look from a tight angle that he hit on the volley, only to see Ricketts acrobatically push it out for arguably his finest save of the night.
Fernandes had the last good chance late on amidst several Union corners in the final ten minutes, but his narrow miss resigned both teams to splitting the points.
“I definitely thought it was going in,” Fernandes said. “I don’t know if it got a touch or went straight to the post, but I thought it was going in. It was unlucky.”
The game also featured the return of Gold Cup call-ups Jack McInerney of the United States, who was sent home as one of four roster replacements by manager Jurgen Klinsmann, and Will Johnson of eliminated Canada. McInerney had just one shot in an ineffective 82 minutes of action for Philadelphia, while Johnson completed the full 90 minutes for Portland.
The Timbers (8-2-10; 34 pts.) sit third in a tight Western Conference race, and return to league play on the road next Saturday against San Jose. That game will come on the heels of a home friendly with English side Norwich City on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Union (8-6-7; 31 pts.) remain fourth in the Eastern Conference, and will travel to Vancouver next Saturday for their next league match.