20211016 timbers defense

The Timbers’ eight-game unbeaten streak ended tonight at the LA Galaxy, with the two errors that led to their hosts’ goals leaving no doubt as to what went wrong.

Thanks to goals from Javier “Chicharito” Hernández and Sacha Kljestan, the Timbers fell at Carson, California’s Dignity Health Sports Park, with Sebastián Blanco’s secord-half goal going for naught as the Galaxy won, 2-1.

The loss leaves Portland in fourth place in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference, five points behind third-place Colorado.

“[The team is] disappointed,” Portland’s head coach, Giovanni Savarese, said after the game. “Everybody has their heads down, because I think we did enough to at least deserve a point.

“I think in the second half, we defended well. We were good with the ball. We created chances. And in the way the game was going, the [fairest result] was at least the tie.”

It’s always reductive to distill a soccer game down to a few moments. Even tonight, the Timbers could have overcome their errors with more goals. That’s always an option. But given how the Galaxy’s goals happened, it’s natural to ask what if? What if Portland did the basics in those moments and helped goalkeeper Steve Clark claim a clean sheet with another standout performance?

The first of those errors came in the 62nd minute, after a good stretch helped Portland move on from a first half of Galaxy control. Just past the hour mark, though, the Galaxy crossed a ball from the right flank to the edge of Clark’s six-yard box. There, center back Larrys Mabiala misjudged the pass, turning a clearance that would have gone out of play for a throw-in or corner kick into an open chance for Hernández at the far post. 1-0, Galaxy.

Blanco responded 10 minutes later, curling a cross against Jonathan Bond’s left post and in to pull the Timbers back even, 1-1. In stoppage time, however, fullback Josecarlos Van Rankin brought down Efrain Álvarez in the Portland penalty area. In the 92nd minute, Kljestan stepped to the spot and, despite Clark correctly guessing the direction of the kick, buried what became the Galaxy’s winning goal.

“Unfortunately, the games don’t sometimes give you what you deserve,” Savarese said. “You have to earn [results] and to make sure that you’re smart in the things you have to do.

“That last play, we saw that Efrain was looking for contact, and we give it to him. That’s disappointing, unfortunately.”

Van Rankin’s mistake is a little different. At various times this season, Portland’s defending at the fullback positions has shown vulnerablities. The type of error we saw from Van Rankin on Saturday was also a part of left back Claudio Bravo’s first months as a Timber. He’s since improved, but he wasn’t available for the game at the Galaxy. Instead, Pablo Bonilla was forced to deal with constant pressure from LA’s right flank, and in the game’s last minutes, Van Rankin was switched to Bonilla’s side and asked to see the game out.

Obviously, that didn’t happen, and in the mistake Van Rankin made, we saw something more common than a whiff on a cross. Van Rankin was beaten to his inside, chose to lunge instead of letting one of his teammates help, and committed an ill-advised foul. Though it’s not rare to see other fullbacks make that mistake, the play was still a mistake. That it happened with minutes left to play made it ill-timed, too.

As with Mabiala’s error, there may be no big-picture lesson to draw from Van Rankin’s foul, but that moment was more than a fluke. And it might tie into a weakness the Timbers have to compensate for, going forward. With both mistakes, though, Portland will be left wonder what if, what they could have done differently, and what an extra point or three would have meant in their quest to track down Colorado.

The win was a huge one of the Galaxy, who were winless in nine-straight games coming into the match. Not only did they snap that streak, but for large portions of the match, they were the more dangerous team. The Timbers did well to get to halftime without allowing a goal. Thanks to the two goals the Galaxy scored in the second half, though, LA is five points ahead of eighth in the West – the first spot in the standings that doesn’t earn a playoff berth.

The Timbers have a similar level of security, with the result leaving them in fourth place, four points up on the two teams behind them. That spot is important, as only the top four teams in each conference are guaranteed home games in the postseason. Portland may not have made up ground on Colorado, but thanks to their results over the last two months, they still have a good chance of opening their postseason at Providence Park.

Instead of any big-picture concerns, it’s the little things that are in focus after Saturday’s loss, particularly as it concerns the two goals the team allowed. How much should Portland read into those moments, worrying about whether they’ll reoccur going forward?

The Mabiala moment seems straight forward enough. Over his four-plus years in Portland, we’ve never seen a similar error from the Timbers’ defender, nor do we see that kind of mistake often, in general. That mistake was so aberrational, it doesn’t make sense for the team to dwell on it for too long. It happened, it’s highly unlikely to ever happen again, and the moment wasn’t created by some huge defensive breakdown.