Champions League

FARLEY | Vision of Timbers' 2021 comes through against Marathón

20210413 valeri team marathon

If a team is lucky, an early-season game will look this: like a vision the technical staff drew up on a whiteboard before the season started. Five goals. Complete control. Scarcely a decent chance conceded. There was a point in the first half when Portland Timbers defender Dario Zuparic had to clear a shot off his team’s goal line, but that moment was an exception, by far. By that point, the Timbers were already up two goals on a night that would end 5-0, with a bevy of near misses over the second half meaning the margin could have been greater.

Yimmi Chara became the second Major League Soccer player with a hat trick in Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League play. Diego Valeri, off a nice cutback from Josecarlos Van Rankin, scored his first of 2021, and Marvin Loría, just before a merciful final whistle, put the Timbers up 7-2 over two legs against Honduras’s CD Marathón. After carrying some uncertainties forward from their leg one draw in San Pedro Sula, Portland played Tuesday’s match without doubts. For the first time in club history, they’ve advanced in SCCL.

“Overall, I think [it was] a very strong performance from the guys,” Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese said after the match. “[It was] a well-deserved win. Now, we just have to continue to work this way.”

Across the field’s length, Tuesday’s performance was all Savarese could have asked for. Going forward, the team struck a balance between patient, possessive play and the type of direct threats that gave its midfield room. When possession was lost, counterpressing quickly restored control, leaving few moments of worry in front of Steve Clark’s goal. As Marathón was tested and spaces began to open, Portland’s forays toward goal became more dangerous. Eventually, Chara had room for two calm finishes before the halftime whistle.

“I think it was a very complete performance – the result of being very organized, of our sacrifice,” Chara said, in Spanish, after the match. “We were able to take advantage of a number of chances we created on goal, and we’re very satisfied. This [performance] is what we’ve been working toward the entire week.”

There were moments in the second half where the game seemed destined to end 2-0. Marathón was forced back, forced to be more conservative in the face of Portland’s attack, but in turn forced the Timbers to try more intricate ways to break through toward goal. Spaces that would need four-, five-pass combinations to create chances would, early in the half, end as a third or fourth touch failed. The sprints in wide spaces that players like Dairon Asprilla used to break down Marathón in the first half had given way to more technical demands.

In time, the floodgates opened. An overload down the right side eventually put Van Rankin in toward the goal line, where he setup Valeri for the captain’s far post finish. Chara, having gone painfully close at least two times before, finally completed his hat trick in the middle of the half before Loría took a long ball from Cristhian Paredes and produced the night’s final score. Whereas once near misses from Chara, Asprilla and Loría left 2-0 looking generous, 5-0 felt fair at the final whistle.

“Right now, the important part was to qualify to the next step [of Champions League],” Savarese said. “The guys worked very hard to obtain that. Now, we’ll prepare for the next match, whoever we have to play, and concentrate on that leg one of the quarterfinals.”

The extent to which the result is a message to the rest of Champions League depends on what you think of Marathón, but within the context of Portland’s 2021, that angle doesn’t feel too important. When CCL resumes the week of April 27, the Timbers will have their first two MLS games of 2021 under their belts. How they played on Tuesday will be less important than the progress they make between now and leg one of Champions League’s quarterfinals.

Instead, what feels important is the concept: that whiteboard plan we saw over Tuesday’s two hours at Providence Park. That plan always involved building on the attacking depth Portland leveraged in 2020, and it should be remembered the team has been playing without three crucial attacking options. What will the Timbers look like when Sebastián Blanco, Jeremy Ebobisse and Jaroslaw Niezgoda become available?

The offseason plan also involved giving the team’s defense a chance to recapture the form it showed during last summer’s MLS is Back tournament, albeit with some new help. Across the back five, the returning players (defenders Zuparic and Larrys Mabiala, along with Clark in goal) and the team’s new fullbacks (Van Rankin and Claudio Bravo) maintained both a clean sheet and control. The performance was not only a step forward but a foundation to build from.

Essentially, that’s what Tuesday night was for Portland, and it’s what we should have anticipated all along. Though the team’s best moments last week in Honduras may have felt diminished by the 2-2 draw, the Timbers still showed a number of positives, and they ultimately came home with a result. Be it through a change of venue, the experience of a season’s first game, or merely seven more days to improve, we should have expected progress in leg two. That’s exactly what we got.

Come their next match in Champions League, Portland should be further along. That’s what seasons are about. But for now, focus turns to MLS, and Sunday’s season opener against Vancouver. Focus shifts with Portland in the Champions League quarterfinals.