PORTLAND, Ore. – The beginning of the week felt like the normal buildup for a team that’s never lacked confidence. Throughout a prolonged winless start and an end-of-season stretch that left the Portland Timbers fighting for their playoff livelihood, the belief of the players never seemed to waver, even if the team’s results said it should. Tuesday and Wednesday were normal. Friday and Saturday were more focused. It was a typical, if slightly more intent, week, even if the weekend’s result would be more important.
But for the 2019 team, results have always been a strange thing. At the beginning of the season, their talent was far better than their 0-5-1 start hinted, while the run the team put together at the end of their 12-game road trip (and into their home schedule) dared the league to adjust. As MLS did, Portland dealt with a compacted scheduled born of their stadium being closed for half the campaign’s calendar, and before Game 34, results still seemed to miss what we thought about the Timbers.
Game 34, however, was practically a playoff game, and as the team showed in 2018, the playoffs give Portland’s talent a chance to shine through. The team did the same in 2015, too, going on the late run that delivered the club its only star, but that’s four years ago, now. What about 2019 told the rest of the world that the Portland Timbers could recapture their 2015, their 2018 forms?
Road wins at Los Angeles FC, New York City FC, Philadelphia and Seattle showed the potential was there, but it was only on Sunday, as FC Dallas’ result in Frisco, Texas, would make the game into a can’t-lose scenario, that the team provided more proof. It wasn’t just in the scoreline – a 3-1 result that was as convincing as any the team’s posted in months. It wasn’t just in the underlying performance, one that allowed the team to rebound from allowing an early equalizer and maintain control of the match. It was the fact they did those things consistently over 90 minutes, in a high-leverage situation, against a team that had made its entire 2019 reputation on the way it played and the effort it offered.
“The players show that in big moments they show up,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, after his team’s 3-1 victory. “They came today with an unbelievable energy. They stuck to the plan and they played a fantastic game … it was an incredible, incredible day.”
The San Jose Earthquakes won’t be the toughest team Portland faces this month. They may prove the easiest, but in the heights Matías Almeyda’s team demanded from the Timbers, there was an important question asked, and answered:
Is Portland ready to raise its level for the postseason? Sunday’s victory issued a clear response. Here’s What We’ll Remember from a playoff-clinching performance.
The challenge at hand
Fans and players had a week to get comfortable with Sunday’s stakes, ones which could (and did) turn into a can’t-lose scenario, but when the team’s Twitter account announced the day’s lineup, the true nature of the task took shape. No Brian Fernandez, who everyone knew would be absent, having incurred a red card last week. But Diego Valeri was also out. He’d been listed as questionable on the injury report. Turns out, some questions have terrible answers.
That’s part of what makes Sunday’s result remarkable. You could hardly blame fans who looked at the day’s XI and doubted the team. Newsflash: Fans worry. Who’s to say they shouldn’t? But for a group that, for days, knew they’d be without their best goalscorer and, likely, their team leader in assists, there had to be a moment, a moment where they came together and gave themselves permission to believe.
There was little evidence that the 18 players dressed in white on Sunday doubted their potential, but from the outside, doubt would have been justified. Instead, the group chose to execute. They chose to discard excuses. They chose to believe.
They chose to fight for their season.
If it’s October …
… it’s Dairon time, a meme that came to life again last postseason, when Asprilla was one of the stand-out performers during the playoffs in Seattle. For as long as the Colombian attacker has been in Portland, there’s been a switch that gets flipped at some point each season. When the playoffs come, or the can’t-lose games come, Asprilla takes it to another level.
“It’s not really about it being October or November,” he said, postgame. “When you are given the opportunity, in any month of the year, you need to take advantage of it. Perhaps, I earned my chance now and I must make the most out of it … I was given an opportunity today and I believe I showed I am capable of doing great things, so I will continue working.”
His goal was the game-winner on Sunday, but his performance went beyond one score. From getting involved in hold-up play early to being crucial to some counterattacks late, the now-long-time Timber vindicated the cynicism that tends to build throughout each season.
If it’s October, it’s time for Dairon.
34 games, gone
There are a number of other moments we’ll remember about Sunday’s game, from Larrys Mabiala producing another big goal to Sebastián Blanco’s sealing free-kick that allowed his team to think of the future. But what we’ll remember most is what we thought, or even believed, for so much of the season. When it was time to play like a playoff team, the Timbers delivered. It’s easy to say, “oh, of course” now, but before Sunday’s kickoff, we weren’t so sure.
Now, it’s the postseason. The long road trip can be forgotten. The up-and-down results that followed the team from summer to fall can, too. All the matters, now, is how the team plays in two weeks against Real Salt Lake. Anything that happened before Utah doesn’t matter, anymore.