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It has now been 20 days since the Portland Timbers conceded a goal. That’s not so bad for a team that still ranks 26th out of 27 in Major League Soccer in goals allowed. But something’s changed since the Timbers gave up three first-half goals in their Aug. 21 visit to Austin FC. Since that match’s 29th minute, the Timbers have kept their opponents silent, outscoring them 6-0 in the process.

Tonight’s 1-0 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps is the latest in that stretch – a third-straight road win that temporarily moves the Timbers into fifth place in MLS’s Western Conference. Whether Portland finishes the weekend above sixth-place Minnesota United almost seems irrelevant in the face of the team’s form. With the win, Portland finishes their five-game road trip at 3-1-1 (W-L-D). They’ve also improved to 10-10-3 for the season.

“We knew it was going to be a difficult game,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said afterward, eventually referencing the 10-game unbeaten streak the Whitecaps carried into the match. “We knew Vancouver had so many things they were looking forward to in this game. And we knew that we had to be very good defensively: organized; compact; making sure that we predicted some of their pattern plays. I thought the guys did a great job to defend well.”

For much of Friday’s game, it was difficult to know what to think of either team’s performance. The Timbers looked like the better team in the first half, but over the early parts of the second, the Whitecaps asserted control. Then again, that’s what the home team is supposed to do. Playing at BC Place for the first time in two years, Portland had a different bar. Road teams have only won 25 percent of their games this year in Major League Soccer, and given Vancouver’s unbeaten run, a point on the road would have been a good result.

In the 66th minute, though, the Timbers’ talent crafted a moment, one that would prove the difference between the two sides. Gaining possession after Darion Asprilla recirculated a ball back to midfield, Sebastián Blanco dribbled past one defender, toward the edge of Vancouver’s penalty area, then chipped a curling pass to the Whitecaps’ far post. There, Felipe Mora had made a curling run into space behind the left side of Vancouver’s defense. Once he settled Blanco’s pass, More blasted a shot across the face of goal, giving a retreating Whitecap, Ranko Veselinovic, little choice but to redirect the ball into his own goal.

It was the best chance of the match for either team, and based on the guidelines for awarding own goals, Mora may yet get credit for his 10th goal of the season. If his shot was going on target before it was redirected, he should get credit for the score, though on review, it’s unclear whether it was headed on goal. Regardless, the goal left the Timbers in a similar place to they were last week in Houston, when they beat Dynamo FC, 2-0. Ahead late in the match, Portland was tasked with seeing out a result on the road. Ultimately, the win was rather comfortable.

“Sometimes you don’t need to listen to [what’s being said] outside the locker room and try to be calm,” Blanco said afterward, “because you know how MLS is. It’s very difficult. You have moments that are better than others. But now, [we had] an opportunity to win three consecutive games, and that is very difficult in MLS. The important thing it to be calm. We believe in our team.”

Much of the credit for the Timbers’ turnaround goes to the team’s defending, though not just the team’s defense. Before Portland began its three-game winning streak, they gave up nine goals over two games to the Seattle Sounders and Austin. You need more than a leaky backline to concede that often. There have to be failures at multiple levels of the field. Since halftime of the Austin game, though, those failures have started to disappear. Through a process of assessment, simplifying, and focus, the team’s goal prevention has turned around.

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“The organization, the calmness to make sure that we did the right things — the understanding of the things we asked the players to do — was noticeable,” Savarese said.

Friday was also a night of milestones for two of the Timbers’ most important parts. At kickoff, Diego Chara became the eighth player in MLS history to play 300 regular-season games for the same club. Only two players, Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi and the LA Galaxy’s Cobi Jones, have spent their entire career with one team and appeared in more. Then, with the final whistle, Savarese earned his 50th regular-season win, a milestone that’s come over three-and-a-half seasons with the club.

Now, with that victory hit and those milestones secured, it’s time for new expectations. Portland is no longer a struggling team looking to rebound. Pregame on this site, we used the word “fragile,” but after ending a team’s 10-game unbeaten run with another road shutout, things don’t seem so fragile anymore. It feels like the Timbers have proved they’re capable of a higher level, and going forward, we should expect that level of performance.

In that way, Portland’s next game may be a perfect test. They’ll be back at home but facing one of the best teams in the Western Conference. No team in the West is earning more points per game this year than the Colorado Rapids. Still, between the game’s location, Portland’s form, and the teams’ talents, the Timbers will be expecting a win, just as they do with any game at home. The fact that the opponent will be difficult, and the team can’t rely on the rivalry intensity of Aug. 29’s win in Seattle, makes the challenge even more valuable.

Credit to the Timbers: They’ve restored expectations. Now, though, it’s time to start living up to them. It’s time to carry this momentum forward and start climbing back up the standings in the Western Conference.

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