FARLEY | Timbers defy first impressions, salvage point in Houston

20210623 pablo bonilla

The Portland Timbers and Houston Dynamo tested the power of first impressions on Wednesday night. One team started stronger than the other and asserted early control, but over the course of the teams’ 90 minutes at BBVA Stadium this evening, that balance evened out, then reversed. By the final whistle, the game was left tied, 2-2, with each team having a set of 45 minutes as evidence they performed well.

Within the context of the night, whether either team was good doesn’t matter anymore. The final gives Houston their fourth draw of the year, Portland their first. Going forward, though, the hows and whys will matter more, and as the score implies, the night was a mixed bag for both.

“[In] the first half, we looked a little bit disconnected,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said after the game. “We conceded the two goals and then toward the end of the half, we created two very good chances on which we could have capitalized and got back into the game. But we went into the locker room with it 2-0, but we felt good about the last few minutes, we did very well.

“Then we made some changes … and we ended up having a very, very good - a tremendous second half, not only because we scored the two goals and we were able to get a very important point in a difficult place, but we played very well in the second half.”

Houston was the better team through halftime, using goals from wingers Fafa Picault and Tyler Pasher to build a 2-0 while the Timbers rarely threatened goal. Late-half chances from winger Darion Asprilla and midfielder Eryk Williamson helped bring their side to life in the period’s final minutes, but as the teams left the field, there was little hint of would follow. Over the night’s second half, Portland assumed Houston’s role, getting an early goal from Asprilla and a stoppage-time equalizer from Jeremy Ebobisse to take a point from Houston.

“The turning point in the game for me, it felt [like when] Dairon scored that goal,” Ebobisse said, when asked about the second half versus the first. The “mental fragilty” that moment create, he explained, fueled Portland’s surge.

“It was a brilliant counterattack off a corner kick, and I know when we have an attacking corner kick, if that results in a goal against, that's unacceptable,” he said. “That definitely gets the confidence a little bit questioning.”

Asprilla’s goal was certainly beautifully executed. It was both the type of goal coaches dream of to counter a set piece and, for the other coach, one that players into fears around committing too many players forward.

It was a goal manifest from the effort of Asprilla and fullback Claudio Bravo, a quick pass from midfielder Renzo Zambrano as well as an aerial triumph from the man who valued the goal so much, Ebobisse. By the time Asprilla’s chip bounces against the side netting in the highlight, below, you can understand the demoralization on one hand, the triumphant on the another.

“When you’re confident, you’re able to work more calmly,” Asprilla said, after the game, when asked to describe his current form. It was the second game in which the Colombian attacker has scored. For him, confident came from “the work.”

“From there, everything you do helps the team improve,” he explained.

What happened before Asprilla’s goal came down to context and execution. Portland played a different formation on Wednesday, shifting from the 4-2-3-1 shape they began with on Saturday, at home against Sporting Kansas City, to a look that played as a 5-2-3. According to Savarese, that choice was born out of the need to rotate players combined with his team’s injuries and absences. Portland, according to their coach, “had no wingers. We had no forwards.

“We had to be creative, and we have a lot of defenders, and we have a lot of defensive mids. [The 5-2-3] is what we felt could work.”

To a certain extent, that look didn’t matter on Houston’s first goal, scored after an early first half corner kick. Perhaps the Timbers don’t concede that restart if they’re playing their normal formation, but they allowed 10 penalty kicks on Saturday against Kansas City, and they also conceded three times on set pieces against the Philadelphia Union in late May. Formation may not have mattered on that one, but on the second goal, a formation that relied on a midfield two may have been the issue - though it’s unclear whether that issue was the team’s tactics or the team’s execution. Perhaps it was a combination of both.

Either way, the team didn’t play well for most of the first half. When Portland went into intermission, the team needed to adjust.

“There was some things in the 5-2-3 — or if you want to call it a 3-4-3 — that we did not do well in the first half, at the beginning,” Savarese said. “But toward the end, we were able to do much better, because we were a little more brave in going to pressure a little bit higher. We found some very good areas to create two very good opportunities that we should have capitalized on …

“And then, we felt that we needed to make a few adjustments … The tactical moves that we made int he second half, I think they paid off very well.”

The rest is in the score.

With the game’s quick turnaround from Saturday, travel in between game, need to manage stars’ minutes, the trip was always going to be a challenge. But combine those with the notorious conditions of Houston (oppressive heat, field that can be questionable) and Wednesday was a great example of why it’s so hard for MLS teams to win on the road. The Timbers had to meet all those challenges while traveling a distance which, within their leagues, few teams in the world are subjected to. For 45 minutes, Portland was primed to succumb.

Yet in the second half, another reality of MLS hit the home team. That reality? Parity, and the fact most teams in this league, with one change of momentum, can bust you in the mouth. Houston did it to Portland in the first half, but after intermission, it was the Dynamo’s turn to take some blows. Come full time, both teams had been knocked down.

On first impressions? Yes, Houston looked like the better team. More than look: They were the better team. From halftime on, though, Portland overwhelmed. First impressions can be powerful, but tonight, first impressions were also wrong.

Everything Portland-Houston on