PORTLAND, Ore. — For most of Wednesday’s 90 minutes between the Portland Timbers and Club América, the match looked destined to be defined by the game’s interminable whistles and yellow cards, as well as the late first-half foul that allowed América to convert from the penalty spot. But come the game’s final moments, the pressure of Portland’s second-half surge paid off, with the last touch of the night seeing Timbers forward Felipe Mora equalize from the spot.
The teams are going to Estadio Azteca tied, 1-1, after of next Wednesday’s final leg, and while much of Wednesday’s action was defined by the center referee’s nine yellow card and 42 foul calls, our memories will be anchored to Mora jumping over the north-end signboards to celebrate in front of Portland’s support.
“For me, there's a lot of emotion when you get a chance to tie the game with a penalty in the last minute,” Mora shared, in Spanish. ‘It's a great moment, and the feeling when you convert, you could see it.
“I was really nervous, but then found a way to calm down. That's how I was able convert.”
Mora’s goal put the night into almost perfect balance. América had scored theirs with the last touch of the first half, capping a first 45 minutes where they were the better side. Seven minutes into second-half stoppage time, Portland scored the night’s last kick, capping a final period where the Timbers had outplayed their foe.
“I think they had the better of us in that first half, and I think we had the better of them in the second half …,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “Yes, at some moments it got a little bit more competitive from both sides, but overall, I think it was a great matchup and a great game.
“For us to have been able to get the goal at the end, I think it was fair for what we put [into] the game.”
Combine the night’s balance with its late drama, and it became difficult to stay in the moment. When the reality of what had transpired settled in, and the implications of Mora’s conversation hit home, thoughts like “we have another 90 minutes of this left” came to mind. “We get to do this all again a week from now.”
If this was leg one, what is in store of leg two? Sure, there were points when the action was choppy, and any flow the players’ tried to craft was broken up by referee Mario Escobar’s influence. But if anything, the fouls only highlighted the teams’ competitiveness, and cast Escobar as a shared foe. As the teams fought to play, Escobar fought for control, leaving us to wonder what obstacles will emerge when the stakes spike a week from now.
“We know that it's going to be a very difficult game,” Mora said of the second leg. “We have a lot of things we can improve on. We have time to work on what we want to do in the next game ... and put ourselves in a position to advance in the competition, down there.”
For both sides have room to improve. The Timbers didn’t register a shot in the first half, and although most of América’s were from safe distances, the visitors were able to force two important fouls. Dario Zuparic will miss the second leg after picking up a first-half yellow, his second of the tournament, while Claudio Bravo’s foul at the edge of the penalty area essentially crafted Roger Martínez’s goal.
América, though, will leave Providence Park with memories of the second half, where Portland showed they were capable of threatening Guillermo Ochoa. The Timbers had to up their tempo and fight harder than they had before halftime, but now they know. They’ve seen the standard they have to meet, and they can carry that knowledge into Mexico.
“What we have to acknowledge is how well we did in the second half,” Savarese said. “The first half, I also don't recall too many opportunities that we gave away. We just were a little bit more alert, aggressive - we moved the ball much better in the second half.”
There is always the possibility that América will be much better at home – in the altitude and familiar sights of their Mexico City fortress. But Portland could be better, too. They not only have their lessons from Wednesday’s first half, but a couple of key components could be returning to health. If those things happen, we could get an even higher quality if equally competitive leg two. Even so close to Wednesday’s drama, it was hard to avoid thinking about what’s still to come.