COMMERCE CITY, Col. – Half one of Thursday’s game had the Portland Timbers on the edge of elimination from the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. Half two sent the Timbers through to their fourth-ever Western Conference final.
Thanks to an 89th-minute goal from Portland central defender Larrys Mabiala, the Timbers eliminated the Western Conference’s top seed, the Colorado Rapids, 1-0 on Thursday at Dick’s Sports Goods Park in the Western Conference Semifinals. The win earned a place among MLS’s last four with the possibility that Portland will host the West’s conference final at Providence Park.
“I felt like [Portland’s late corner kick] could be the only way we could score today, because it was very tight,” Mabiala said from the field postgame. By game’s end, but teams were sitting deeper defensively, hoping to hit their opponent with a counter attack.
“We tried to regroup a little bit [before] that set piece,” he remembered, “and I just felt like the ball was about to bounce there. I just followed my instinct.”
Colorado had complete control of the first 45 minutes, dictating play and continuously breaking through the right side of Portland’s defense. Twice goalkeeper Steve Clark had to come up with saves on shots which, had they been better placed, would have sent the favorites into halftime with a lead. Instead, the teams went into intermission scoreless.
“We just made the plays when it counted,” Clark said when asked about the first half’s imbalance. “They’re a very good team. It’s a difficult place to play. The pitch wasn’t very good. We were a little out of rhythm, but we got the result.”
Come the second half’s kickoff, it was clear Portland had adjusted. Defensively, the Timbers kept their lines tighter and elected to engage the Rapids’ buildup deeper on the field. To counter the advantages the Rapids had on the flanks throughout the first half, Portland began dropping wingers into the defensive line, sometimes playing five players across the back.
When they won the ball, the Timbers played long, scaring the Rapids as Dairon Asprilla, Sebastián Blanco and Yimmi Chara got behind the host’s defense. Blanco’s foray forward would result in injury, forcing him from the game with an apparent hamstring problem. But for the first time in the game, the Rapids had reason to doubt.
“Colorado got a little bit the better of us in the first half,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese conceded afterward. “They found some spaces, and we adjusted in the second half. [We] closed the spaces and [were] able to be better with the ball … We knew we were going to find those moments to create our opportunities.”
Over the rest of the second half, that dynamic persisted, albeit with the Rapids adjusting. Instead of one team playing as if the field inclined toward their opponents’ goal, the second 45 saw the Timbers stun the Rapids then both teams exchange blows before a final segment where each sought to play over the others’ midfield. All along, even after the teams transitioned into their attacks Portland had the slightly better of play, with the game’s dynamic turning toward their strengths.
“The most important thing was the way that we defended in the second half,” Savarese emphasized. Whereas the Timbers needed multiple big saves from Clark in the first half, in the second half, they were able to reduce the Rapids to series of hopeful crosses. “In the second half, the players performed at a high level to make sure that we had a very, very strong win.”
That turnaround was the true story of the match, but ultimately, it was another turnaround, albeit more subtle, that provided the winning margin. In the first half, Colorado had come close to converting one of their many corners, with the Timbers’ inability to mark center back Austin Trusty nearly paving a Rapids breakthrough. Just before the end of regulation time, though, in front of the goal where Colorado failed to convert their chances, Mabiala took advantage of penalty-box chaos to score his second goal of the playoffs.
"We knew that if we could go into half at 0-0, we could have all our chances," he said. "We made some adjustments at the halftime and it paid off."
Nobody will be surprised that the Timbers won at Colorado. The success of the team’s core en route to a 2018 MLS Cup final appearance and victory at last year’s MLS is Back Tournament speak to the team’s bonafides. The surprise comes in how the game unfolded, the changes the team was able to make and, in the various obstacles they had, the adversity they were able to overcome.
Their prize is one of the more memorable wins in Timbers team history, as well as a place in the playoffs’ next round. If Sporting Kansas City defeats Real Salt Lake on Sunday, the West’s final will be in Kansas two weekends from now. If RSL emerges, there'll be another game at Providence Park.