Two Portland Timbers goals in Friday’s 20 minutes led to two pieces of Major League Soccer history: the Timbers won their first-ever match in Houston, and the Houston Dynamo were held without a win for a league-record 16th time in a row.
“Getting three points away from home [is] very important,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said afterward. The win was Portland’s third on the road this season and keeps them sixth in MLS’s Western Conference.
“We knew that it was going to be a very important match,” Savarese said. “The first time. We made history. The Timbers had never won in Houston.”
Chara opened the scoring in the 15th minute, one-timing the rebound of a Mora shot into the right-side netting from six yards out. Three minutes later, Mora drew a foul in the penalty box after beating Houston goalkeeper Michael Nelson to a ball behind the Dynamo defense. Nelson guessed the wrong way on Mora’s ensuing try from the spot, conceding Portland’s insurance goal.
From there, the game changed. Whereas the Timbers had pushed most of the action into Houston’s end over the first 20 minutes, they played out the rest of the half with little need for risk. In the second half, when the Dynamo started to control the game but still never generated good chances, the game changed even more. The Timbers waited to see if Houston would break them down, and that wait lasted through the final whistle.
“We were very satisfied, the way started that game,” defender Larrys Mabiala said, “especially the first 30, 35 minutes, where we could move the ball and get ourselves into some dangerous situations.
“We kind of dropped the intensity a little bit,” after the two goals, he explained. “Maybe we were tired. We couldn’t come back with the same energy. But the most important is that we got the three points, today, and another clean sheet.”
After those three points, the most important thing was the consistency, making it impossible to look Friday’s result without considering Sunday’s, too. The Timbers’ win in Seattle felt like a potential course-changing event – the type of high-stakes road win that could render their one-win-in-seven stretch moot. But if Portland moved from that to stumbling against the Dynamo, their swoon would be back into focus. Last Sunday wouldn’t be a turning point. It would be an outlier.
It’s still too early to say whether the Sounders game is a turning point, but to a certain extent, that’s what focusing on the bigger, 180-minute sample is all about. Over their last two games, both on the road, the Timbers have given complete, 90-minute performances. They’ve been consistent, and although there’s a risk of overusing that word, consistency needs to be in focus. It’s one of the qualities their 2021 has missed most. Independent of results, that fact the team has been able to give consecutive, positive, disciplined performances feels like a big step forward.
“After that game we lost at home against Seattle,” Mabiala said, referring to the team’s 6-2, August 15 defeat to the Sounders, “we were very down, and we really tried to lift ourselves up. It wasn’t easy. We could only count on ourselves.
“I think the response has been very [good]. We’re going to use the difficult moments we’ve been through to carry us to the end of the season, now.”
Beyond that, there’s danger in taking too much from a win over Houston. Though the Dynamo players never lacked effort on Friday, they lack cohesion. The work Maxi Urruti did at forward wasn’t feeding into Fafà Picault’s or Tyler Pasher’s on the wingers, and it wasn’t being complemented by the midfield’s work behind them. The defense played reasonably well, but it was unclear how the work done by the Dynamo’s back five or six was seeding what they did going forward. Maybe Houston wasn’t a team of 11 different directions, but there were at least three or four.
These are the type of games a team with Portland’s talent are supposed to win, even if the Timbers had never won in Houston before. The Dynamo were the slight betting favorites heading into the game, but for those who know Portland’s situation, they know it would have been a major problem if the Timbers lost. What good are wins in Seattle, it’d be asked, if you give points back in Houston?
For the Timbers to make those questions irrelevant before they were even asked is progress. It showed consistency, and it showed a level of urgency. If Portland is elevating their commitment for these types of games — if they’re bringing the same level of focus to Houston that they do to Seattle — then they’ve improved upon the team that struggled in places like Austin, or at the Galaxy earlier this season. That the Timbers are now doing the things they’re supposed to do shows they’re ready to move forward.
“The work that the guys that put in in practice, we’re starting to see it on the field,” Savarese said. “We’re starting to see a cohesive group that worked very hard to get a very difficult victory. That puts us now in a better situation in the table.”