September 17th, 2010 | enzymedpdx.com

By Oakley Brooks

Neither mid-game replacements, backup goalkeepers nor broken bones seem to be slowing down the Timbers’ defense. Their third straight shutout, against Carolina on Saturday, capped 334 minutes of scoreless play dating back to a first-half goal conceded to Austin on Aug. 26. The Timbers are now tied for the second-fewest goals allowed in the USSF Division 2 Pro League, with 20.

The most obvious asset at the back has been the play of goalkeeper Steve Cronin, who recorded a five-save effort amid 16 shots in Carolina and now has posted back-to-back 10-shutout seasons, something no keeper has done since the Timbers returned to Portland in 2001.

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But there’s also an especially stingy strut among the Timbers’ whole back line.

“Everybody is tuned in right now,” said defender and captain Ian Joy.

So tuned into the game, in fact, that they’re playing through plenty of hiccups and hard knocks. The latest hit central defender Ross Smith on Saturday in Carolina, when he broke a bone on the outside of his left hand while challenging for a head ball. He dusted himself off and stayed in the match. This week he was practicing in a light cast, with no sign he’d miss Saturday’s showdown with Puerto Rico on the outskirts of San Juan.

“He’s a tough guy,” said Head Coach Gavin Wilkinson. “I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

Wilkinson can rest easy knowing that even personnel changes among the back four don’t seem to make a difference. In the last six games, in which the Timbers have yielded just one goal, Wilkinson has started five different combinations at the back. He gave backup goalkeeper Matt Pyzdrowski a rare start in Minnesota on Aug. 21 and the team blanked the Stars for a 1-0 win. And Wilkinson was forced to shove Scot Thompson onto the field in the ninth minute against Puerto Rico on Sept. 2, when Steve Purdy knocked heads with an Islanders attacker hard enough to blur Purdy’s vision. The Timbers still got the shutout.

“Our roster is so deep for every position,” said defender Stephen Keel, who has appeared in four of the last six games. “That’s one of the beauties of our team and our strengths. One guy goes out and we don’t miss a beat when another comes in.”

Keel attributes some of the success to strong crowd turnouts during the three-game homestand culminating with the Puerto Rico win – in the team’s last game at the under-renovation PGE Park – on Sept. 2.

“Having 15,000 people behind you, the concentration level is a little higher and we’ve just been able to carry that forward,” Keel said.

Of course, the Timbers back line will need to hold onto that momentum through three more road games over the next three weeks, not least of which is this Saturday against the crafty Islanders. They knocked the Los Angeles Galaxy of the MLS out of the North and Central American champion’s league competition this summer, and they beat USSF Division-2 power Austin, 3-1, in Puerto Rico on Saturday.

“Puerto Rico is very dangerous,” said Joy. “They have some great players who like go after you one vs. one. Their striker’s not bad either. Fortunately, last game we contained them. We stuck to our guns.

“It’s going to be a different game down there,” he continued. “You travel there, you got to get used to the weather, and the time zone. It’s not very easy. But with the attitude we have, we’ll be fine.”

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