Slow start, strong response as Timbers push back into the win column

PORTLAND, Ore. – The main objective was to get back in the win column, and in the process, put Saturday’s disappointment behind them, but after seven minutes on Wednesday at Providence Park, the nightmare was poised to continue. The goal from Columbus Crew SC’s Niko Hansen, and the controversy that surrounded it, only fed into the feeling that persisted from this weekend’s deflating loss.

Then the match settled, and with David Guzmán’s 18th-minute equalizer, it turned. Ultimately, for most of the next 72 minutes, the Portland Timbers proved the better side, eventually defeating the Crew 3-2 in a game made closer by a Hansen stoppage-time goal.

“We responded very well under the adversity,” Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese said, after this team’s victory, one that helped put Saturday’s 4-1 loss in Houston in the rearview. “For [Columbus] finding the goal early, and for us to react right away and raise the level, it was fantastic.

“That’s something that we spoke (about) during the two days we’ve been practicing,” he said, of the team’s time back in Portland, “and I thought it was great from the guys. The attitude was perfect.”

That attitude was the biggest question mark heading out of the team’s weekend loss. Aberrational in the way they conceded their goals, the Timbers returned home from their Texas sojourn having been humbled by the Dynamo, forcing them to confront the new vulnerabilities Houston exposed.

But as important as confronting those flaws was building past them, something that made Wednesday’s slow start so worrisome.

“It was a whole lot of yelling, ref this, ref that,” Timbers striker Samuel Armenteros said of a Columbus movement that began as Guzmán fell to the ground, clutching his head after contact.

“When you think of something going wrong, you hope for it to not be a controversial decision where our player gets hit in the head. As I’m used to it, if it is a head injury, or is somebody covering their face, you stop the ball directly, or the referee has to stop the game …

“We said, ‘this can’t be. Especially not at home,’” Armenteros continued. “That sucks, but I think we fed off of that, and we came back stronger.”

Guzmán’s goal, off a play the team diagrammed before kickoff, restored a hold of the match, and when Andy Polo’s end-to-end, 37th-minute run finished with a tie-breaking score, the Timbers could finally move past their recent slump.

“I’m very happy to have scored in front of the fans at home,” Polo said of his first Major League Soccer goal. “It’s about time that I scored. In the end, I just want to contribute to the team and complete our goal, which is to qualify for the playoffs.”

It’s a goal that got a major boost on Wednesday, particularly after Seattle Sounders FC lost later in the night, allowing the Timbers to vault from sixth to fourth place in MLS’ Western Conference. But that leap wouldn’t have been possible without Armenteros, who celebrated his return to the starting lineup by ricocheting a second-half shot off Columbus’ Lalas Abubakar and into Zack Steffen’s goal.

“Yeah, we’re going to have to talk to MLS about that,” Armenteros said, tongue-in-cheek, when prompted to talk about the scorer’s decision on the own goal. “It was obviously my intention to score that. It was just such a good shot that [the defender] couldn’t take it. I’m not sure it was even deflected. Did it touch the defender?”

It was a response befitting both Armenteros’ personality and the team’s new mood. Four days ago, Portland left the field at BBVA Compass Stadium after one of its worst performances of the season – a performance that, early Wednesday, seemed poised to impact the result against the Crew. But moving past their slow start, the team eventually pushed back into the win column, giving the Timbers momentum with which to face another short turnaround.

“The feeling is that we need to get rest and get well for the game in the couple days we have in Minnesota,” captain Diego Valeri said. “It’s not an easy game. It’s not an easy stadium. We need to perform, and if we can get points in this part of the season, it will be important.”