Thirty minutes into Tuesday’s match in Honduras, Portland Timbers fans would have expected more from the result. Portland players would have, too. Be it through Felipe Mora, Yimmi Chara, Diego Valeri or Eryk Williamson, the Timbers had no trouble creating early chances, forcing multiple, sprawling saves from CD Marathón goalkeeper Devovan Torres. Once Mora broke through in the 35th minute, the Timbers looked on pace to start 2021 with victory on the road.
When the final whistle blew with the teams tied at two, fulltime delivered a set of sobering reminders: that soccer matches have lives that evolve, turn, and grow; that life on the road in international play is almost always more difficult than we assume; but also: two away goals and an even score at halftime of two-game match are valuable. Though Tuesday’s strong start gave players and fans a reason to expect more, a draw in Honduras keeps Portland on track to advance out of Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League’s initial knockout round.
“We knew that it was going to be a tough match, a big challenge,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said in his post-match press conference. “That’s what we found with Marathón …
“I thought that we did, especially in the first half, a lot of very good things. We created chances. Unfortunately, we couldn’t capitalize a little bit more on the chances we created, and then a few moments that they had, they were able to find goals.”
For a Portland team looking to improve on last season, there were a number of reminders of 2020. Many of those were good. Some were not. The team’s potency in attack and its various ways of breaking down an opponent harkened back to the high points of last season, even while standouts like Sebastián Blanco, Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Jeremy Ebobisse were not available. The progress that’s taken place over Giovanni Savarese’s three-plus years in Portland is evident on that side of the ball. But as the team did throughout 2020, it gave up crucial goals, twice allowing Marathón to equalize before, eventually, salvaging a result. That’s where progress will be most needed going forward.
Even within the first goal allowed, there were reminders of what we’ve seen before. When Marathón equalized before halftime, they did so after being able to play from one side to the other; after being able to play from wide of one post toward an open chance near the other. While it’s too early to flashback to 2019, when goals like that were a major problem early in the season, the way Marathón scored something to note. The timing — so quickly after a Portland goal — was noteworthy, too. If the Timbers’ 2021 is going to be a step up from what they were before, problems like those need to be exceptions, not rules.
“In the end, [there were] a couple moments that looked favorable, but we’re not satisfied,” Savarese offered as a final assessment. “We wanted to get a win, and we’re going to continue to prepare for the match now that we're going to play in Portland.”
Here, though, is where the context of Tuesday’s game matters. Some people might call that context an excuse, but the playing conditions in Honduras were a reality. One team was familiar with the long grass and soft field of the Estadio Olímpico Metroplitano. The other was not. One team was used to the warm conditions of the Honduran evening. The other was not. One team is in the middle of their season, used to facing those types of challenges for 90 minutes, but as the open game and tiring faces of the second half said, the other team was not.
“The field is very muddy, and it's not easy to play because the ball doesn’t move quickly,” Savarese said, when asked about the “hot” evening. “But these are the conditions that we expected. We prepared for it. We knew these were some of the challenges that we were going to face, and we dealt very well with those challenges.
“But you can see towards the last few minutes of the game that we started giving a little bit more space than we did before, and as I said prior, [Marathón midfielder Kelvin] Arriaga found moments to dribble and become a little more dangerous. They found some corners, some more dangerous crosses, but we dealt well. As I said before, we're not satisfied with this result but scoring two goals away is very important.”
As each pass in Honduras labored in the Olímpico grass, and the backspin from lofted balls killed play when chips fell to earth, it was tempting to dream of next week’s game at Providence Park and think of the contrast. For every bit as slow as the field was in Honduras, it will be fast in Portland. For all the inconsistencies of Tuesday’s long blades and soft ground, the pitch in Goose Hollow will be consistent, and reliable. As unfamiliar as Portland was with the conditions’ demands in San Pedro Sula, they will be experts with those in their home venue. In seven days, it’s Marathón that will have to adjust. It’s what home-and-home rounds are all about.
When you remember that context, it’s difficult to be too disappointed with Tuesday’s result. Perhaps the talent in Portland’s team left us expecting more, with the Timbers’ start validating those hopes, but it would be too much to swing back to being disappointed in 2-2. The team had a number of legitimate things working against them, and they still came out of Honduras with road goals.
“The guys did a phenomenal job to manage all those things that we had to face, and that we predicted …,” Savarese said. “We did suffer some moments when they were able to find more space, but overall I thought we played a very smart match.”
In that way, 2-2 may have been the perfect assessment. As half of that scoreline implies, you don’t that reach a 2-2 without doing some good; and as the other half counters, you don’t end tied without making mistakes, too.
That the good and the bad were so reminiscent of 2020 reminds us of how Portland need to improve. A game one, there’s certainly work to do. But now, that work continues in the wake of a positive result. Leg one wasn’t everything Portland expected, but it was still a good start to a season.