PORTLAND, Ore. – For the second-straight game, the Portland Timbers reached the final whistle with a three-goal margin, and for the first time since May 2018, the team has a five-game winning streak. Scoring three times in the second half against the visiting San Jose Earthquakes, the Timbers pulled into a tie on points at the top of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference, winning 3-0 behind two goals from Jaroslaw Niezgoda to forge the team’s longest winning run since head coach Giovanni Savarese’s first season in Portland.
“Well done by Jaro to score that great goal to put us on top,” Savarese said, referring to Niezgoda’s 46th minute header. “Then, the game became better for us. Because now, having to manage the match winning by a goal allowed us to be able to find spaces, be a little more calm. And then thank God, we were able to find the goals to be able to get a very important win today.”
Despite the trouble Portland had getting their attack clicking in the first half, Sunday night ended up being a rarity among the team’s recent performances. It was comfortable. Granted, somebody could look at the team’s 6-1 victory last month in San Jose and rightly call that comfortable, and perhaps they could do the same with the 6-3 win Portland earned at the LA Galaxy on Wednesday. But you could also see games where goals become incessant as something more exciting than comfortable. Those games were positively uncomfortable.
Sunday wasn’t that, even if the Timbers’ final goal, from Felipe Mora, came only four minutes before the end of regulation time. Instead, Sunday’s was the type of game where Portland maintained the favorite’s pose throughout, and while halftime’s scoreline began to seed doubts, those doubts lasted less than a minute into the second period, with Niezgoda opening the scoring just after the half’s kickoff.
“The first half was a little bit difficult,” Savarese conceded. “We didn't have the fluidity we were looking for in the final third. The buildup was good, but when we got to those areas, the mobility wasn't there. Then [at] halftime, we made sure we were able to communicate some of the things that needed to improve, and the guys went into the second half and put in plays, the things we asked them to do.”
It wasn’t a perfect performance at either end of the field. San Jose tested Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark in the sixth minute and had multiple good opportunities throughout the match. But it was also the type of performance you’d expect given the two teams’ seasons. The Earthquakes were the underdogs, visiting while trying to reclaim a place in the West’s playoff picture. Portland is near the top of the standings and looking to claim the top-most position possible before next month’s start of the postseason.
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“In Orlando, we proved that we are a very good team,” Niezgoda said postgame, when asked about the importance of finishing first. “Now, we are still very good. Every game, we play very well. It's clear. It's obvious. We want to be in first place, in the end.”
For Niezgoda, his first MLS brace brought his goal total to six on the season, putting him one behind a trio of team leaders: Jeremy Ebobisse, Mora and Diego Valeri, who all sit on seven goals. For Ebobisse, the night’s individual accomplishments may prove more lasting. When he was substituted on in the 61st minute, Ebobisse became the club’s all-time leader in consecutive appearances, running his streak to 73 and claiming the record from a former teammate, Darlington Nagbe.
“Sometimes you focus on certain things, and you don't count the repetitive matches that he was playing,” Savarese said, “So I'm extremely proud of him. He's an example. Jebo is a person, a player, a human being that is just a perfect example in the way he goes about [things], how much he works to get rewarded. This achievement is just every part of who he is, and how hard he works, and how much he's an example for everybody else.”
Beyond Ebobisse’s record, the biggest storylines were at the team level. With the clean sheet, the Timbers have shutout three of their last five opponents, forming a new trend after going the regular season’s first 11 games without keeping a team off the scoreboard. And with their three goals, Portland now has the second-most prolific attack in Major League Soccer, their 36 scores only two behind Los Angeles FC.
Perhaps more importantly, though, their play is improving, and doing so consistently. Whereas a month ago, irregular results cast the team in a post-MLS is Back Tournament swoon, the Timbers have now fully regrouped, with an attack featuring the depth of Ebobisse, Mora, Niezgoda and Valeri allowing Portland to find its stride within a compacted schedule.
On Wednesday, that schedule will take the team to Utah, where a match with Real Salt Lake will spark memories of the Timbers’ inconsistent period (6:30pm PT, ROOT SPORTS). The last time the teams met, RSL scored two goals in second-half added time, salvaging 4-4 draw at Providence Park from a game that was careening toward a loss. If Portland has, in fact, reached a new level, it should show at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“Every game is different,” Savarese cautioned. “It doesn't matter how many times you play the same team. Every game is tough … but every game becomes a completely different [dynamic]. I think the important part is the maturity of our team, the maturity of the guys to be able to step on the field and make sure that they are able to put in place the things we ask them to do.”