ORLANDO, Fla. – There was a stretch on Saturday night when the nightmare was in view – when the Portland Timbers, having conceded the first goal of their quarterfinal match against New York City FC in the MLS Is Back Tournament Knockout Stage presented by Audi, and were both trailing on the scoreboard and struggling to control play. For Diego Chara’s 300th all-competition appearance, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
This was supposed to be a celebration of a man who never wants to be celebrated, a night to put center stage a player who prefers to stay in the chorus. It was supposed to be a win for one of the Timbers’ talismans. Instead, an early goal had brought elimination into view.
That’s when Portland’s other talisman stepped up. Sebastián Blanco did so before halftime, curling a 14-yard shot into the right side netting minutes before intermission, while Diego Valeri came through soon after the break, calmly finishing a ball laid into space by Jaroslaw Niezgoda, putting the Timbers up, 2-1.
With a late blast from Andy Polo – an unlikely, memorable goal followed by an even more unlikely and memorable celebration – Portland had their 3-1 victory. They also had a place among the tournament’s last four, as well as a Wednesday night meeting with the Philadelphia Union (5pm PT, FS1).
“There is a great feeling for us to be able to continue to go forward ...,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said afterward. “Credit to the guys, they’ve been incredible. In training, in the games, the way we have managed the situations have been fantastic.
“Today was a special day because it was Chara’s 300th match, so it was meaningful and very important for us. We wanted Chara to remember it in a very special way.”
There comes a point in tournament soccer when it feels passé to focus on anything but moving on. The Timbers not only did that but, ultimately, they did so with comfort. The first 45 minutes may have been a mixed performance, but in the game’s second 45 – particularly the period after Valeri and Niezgoda were both on the field – Portland’s attack seemed to reach a new level.
Intricate play from the team’s first subs. Dynamism between New York’s defense and midfield lines, bolstered by a roaming Blanco. The continued contributions from Jeremy Ebobisse, deployed wide, and the connections of Eryk Williamson. As the half played out, more facets of Portland’s attack seemed to emerge.
Particularly as Polo and Felipe Mora came on later, this was another theory of the Timbers playing out, and as was the case with the team’s depth at forward – fully leveraged earlier in the tournament – this was a theory which, until Saturday night, had largely been kept on the whiteboard. But from that board emerged the idea of Polo contributing in central midfield, Mora being playing wide, and the team being able to legitimately rely on its depth in important moments.
Pablo Bonilla, signed to an MLS deal just before this tournament, spelled Chris Duvall at right back against New York. Marvin Loría’s place in the starting lineup allowed the team to keep 45 minutes off Valeri’s load. Even Homegrown Player Blake Bodily, a player months removed from his last game in college, was able to make his first MLS appearance, giving a new player as well as his organization an added reward.
“Everyone played a very important role in the game today,” Savarese said. “Everybody had exactly something that they needed to do in this game.
“Remember, we didn’t have that much time to recover: only three days from the last match. So we had to be smart in the way we went about this match. Everyone really contributed to make sure that we got a great win.”
In terms of style, the theory of an evolved Timbers was exemplified by nobody more than Niezgoda. From the first moments the Designated Player was inserted at forward, the attack had a new look, with Niezgoda’s never-before flashed speed able to turn the NYCFC defense. His movement along the line was on display, too, pulling apart the Cityzens’ central defenders by luring one into the wide spaces, while his interplay with Valeri turned the Timbers’ second goal. To date, he still only has one start with Portland, but with two goals and one assist in his last three games, Niezgoda is beginning to show his value.
“Polo, Niezgoda, Mora, the guys that were all ready from the beginning,” Savarese said, keeping the focus on the collective. “It was a collective effort and a great performance from the guys in a well-executed plan.”
That exhibition may need to continue in the semifinals, where the level competition not only increases but arrives on short rest. Philadelphia played their quarterfinal on Thursday, two days before Portland’s. Just as NYCFC was on Saturday, the Union will be the more rested side. Come Wednesday’s kickoff, the best version of the Timbers may not only be on one that leverages Valeri’s rest and their forward options but also the depth they’ve accumulated across the depth chart.
“That’s what we have,” Savarese said, when asked about his lineup choices. “We could have come into this match and complained and said ‘we have less days, we’re tired, we have players that haven’t rested enough.’ But it’s about figuring things out and the players coming and showing up.
“At the end of the day, all that you planned only works when at the end, you get a win. Today we were able to execute well and we saw that the guys all participated in a good way to help each other to go through this difficult match. We had to do it this way because we have less days to train, to rest. Now we’re going to also have less days. We have to figure it out, but the heart of the guys, the way they’re going about it has been fantastic.”
There are things the team needs to clean up. For the fourth time in Orlando, the team conceded a penalty kick. For the third time, it was converted. There were also moments in the first half when, in attack, patience could have prevailed – where play could have forced New York into decisions that revealed more holes.
Ultimately, this was a tournament quarterfinal. And while there are legitimate qualms with some aspects of their play, it does feel passé to be too exacting. The Timbers are in bottom-line mode at a bottom-line point of their competition. They’ve won, and they’re moving on.