It was a win that answered so many questions, and in such a decisive way. Defeating Real Salt Lake, 4-1, in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday not only saw the Portland Timbers hand RSL their second home loss of the season, it also provided a series of responses, answers to growing concerns about the team’s attack, road form, as well as what their best formation headed into Major League Soccer’s postseason.
The Timbers aren’t there yet, in terms of playoffs, but three points at Rio Tinto Stadium represents a huge step forward. With two games left in the 2018 season, Portland is six points up on the LA Galaxy, the seventh-place team in MLS’ Western Conference. The top six teams in each conference make the playoffs.
“The discipline, execution of the plan that we had, it was great from the guys, and especially after the adversity,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said after the match. “After they scored the tying goal (in the 55th minute), we maintained ourselves, calm, and stuck to what we [planned]. [It was] a very good performance and a very important victory today against a very good team.”
Coming into the night, scoring was a concern, with an increasing number of onlookers noting the team’s goals, particularly from the forwards, had started to dry up. However, both Jeremy Ebobisse and Lucas Melano scored on Saturday.
Coming into the night, the team’s form away from home had become worrisome, with disheartening losses in Houston and Minneapolis casting the team in a Jerkyl and Hyde pose. The team responded with their most convincing road performance of the season.
And the team’s formation, worried about in the debate of the week – where should Diego Chara be playing – provided a pacifier to those who had been pining for the 4-2-3-1’s return. Just as it did last time the team used it – in June’s U.S. Open Cup match against San Jose – the shape delivered a much-needed win.
Perhaps more important than the formation, though, were the performances. Bill Tuiloma, stepping into the lineup for the suspended Liam Ridgewell, acquitted himself well in his first start since June. David Guzmán, back working in tandem with Chara in front of the team’s defense, delivered his best performance of the year, while Ebobisse opened the night’s scoring with his second MLS goal of the season.
But the night’s biggest standout was the man who continues to emerge as the attack’s most dangerous force. Sebastián Blanco not only delivered the cross for Ebobisse’s opener but added two great finishes to break open what was once a 1-1 game. In the 70th minute, a solo effort after an RSL clearance provided the game’s winning goal, while a sharp-angle finish into the upper-right corner three minutes later assured Portland would fly home with full points in Utah.
“I’m very happy, but I’m very happy because it’s important for the three points,” Blanco said, when asked about this night. “We played compact, aggressive, patient. We waited for our moments. Today, we played like a very strong team.”
For the Timbers, the victory was an important result, not only in terms of the standings and reversing some lingering, pessimistic narratives but also in terms of the team’s actual goals. This final, four-games-in-five-weeks stretch that began last week with a 0-0 draw against FC Dallas was always going to be the final dress rehearsal – the ultimate, full go before the show actually starts. With games against Dallas, RSL (twice) and Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the Timbers had a platform to close strong, but in light of performances against Houston and Minnesota, there were doubts. Could the Timbers team fans saw from April through August, during Portland’s 15-game unbeaten run, resurface when games mattered most?
Saturday was the first indication that it could. Real Salt Lake entered the match without a win in three matches, but it also returned to Rio Tinto with a 10-1-4 mark at home. Theirs was a side that had scored 50 goals this season, yet for the most part, the match was played on the Timbers’ terms. There were times in the first half when lofted balls beat Portland’s defense, and after the team failed in their appeals for a foul on Kyle Beckerman early in the second half, there were 10 minutes where, to a certain degree, Portland seemed to lose their composure.
The team responded to that stretch, though, with three goals and a controlling final 30 minutes, a stretch that renewed hopes that the team can compete closer to the top of the Western Conference. Those hopes, like other hopes that have surfaced throughout the season, will have to be tested against a broader perspective, but for one night, all the questions around the Timbers received positive returns. For one night, the Timbers returned to their summer selves, if not more.
“We knew that if we stick with the plan, that at the end, we would get opportunities,” Savarese said. “We did the job in a perfect way. This was a great performance away from home.”