What did the Portland Timbers need more: a win or a shutout? Sunday night in Seattle, they got both, with goals from Sebastián Blanco and Felipe Mora helping Portland knock off the West-leading Sounders, 2-0, at Lumen Field.
It was the Timbers’ first win in three games against their chief rivals this season and only their second win in their last eight games, overall. It was also the first time since July 17 they kept a clean sheet, their fourth of the season. After beginning the night in 10th in the West with Major League Soccer’s second-worst defense, Portland’s three points in Seattle vaulted them to sixth in the conference, doing so without adding to their goals allowed column.
“We had the patience to be able to make sure we understood the moments in the game in which we had to defend a little more, or when we had to attack a little bit more, and we found good spaces going forward,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said afterward, calling the performance “a good step forward.”
“The first half, I would say all the way until the 35th, 40th minute, it was very, very good,” he continued. “I think we were the dominant team mostly in the first half …
“Second half, they were able to come more at us. They found more spaces, especially [on] the corners, where they were very dangerous, and during that time, we stayed disciplined.”
The game wasn’t without its worries. Early in the first half, midfielder Eryk Williamson left the game with an apparent major injury to his left knee. We can only hope appearances were deceiving, but it appears for the second-straight Seattle trip, the Timbers will return to Portland with both a victory and a major loss. In addition, Williamson’s replacement, Cristhian Paredes, had to leave the game in the second half after suffering what looked like an injury to his right leg. By game’s end, seven different Timbers had spent time in central midfield.
There was also the issue of the Timbers’ set-piece defending, which was shaky throughout Sunday’s second half. Three times, the Sounders hit the goalposts off second-half corner kicks. The Timbers ultimately kept their clean sheet, but in the chances Seattle had from dead balls, it was surprising they never broke through.
But other team’s poor finishing is one of the possibilities whenever you take the field. So are injuries, unfortunately. So are the type of mistakes the Sounders made in possession ahead of both of Portland’s goals. Ultimately, each soccer game is about responding to the conditions you’re presented over that 90 minutes. Come Sunday’s final whistle, there was no doubt Portland had done better job of that than the Sounders.
“It was really, really good teamwork today,” Blanco said after the game. “We prepared a lot for this game, and I'm so proud of this team, because we were in a bad moment, a bad situation. to come here and give our best effort, our best version, made me feel so proud.”
Beyond the bottom line, there were a number of other positives for Portland. Take Blanco’s night, for example. Eleven months after suffering a torn ACL during the Timbers’ last trip to Seattle, Blanco made his second start of the year and scored the game-winning goal. As his teammates ran from their bench and across the field to celebrate, you could see how special it was for Blanco to score on his Seattle return.
There was also the way the Timbers defended, though that comes with those set-piece caveats. In other parts of the game, Portland kept Seattle under control, defending in a tight, conservative 4-4-2 shape intent on leaving the Sounders no mistakes to build on. Portland’s wingers did extra work as fullbacks stayed tight at the back, and although Seattle was able to generate 12 corner kicks, they were never able to find a reliable way through them Timbers’ defense. For a team that had given up 12 goals in its last four games, it was a significant step forward.
“We worked very hard,” Savarese said. “We believed in fighting together to be able to get a result, and we knew exactly, tactically, each player, what to do in those moments.”
Savarese tempered his praise with realism, though. He saw all of Seattle’s close calls.
“Now we need to get better,” he said. “Even though it was a great performance in a very good game, and being able to beat Seattle here, our rival, was very important, we have to continue to grow. We have to continue to get better. We have to continue to work on some details.”
Perhaps more than anything, though, the Timbers’ effort might be the biggest positive. Maybe effort isn’t the right word — maybe focus or commitment are more appropriate— but there was something about the team’s consistency that felt so different than last weekend’s loss at Austin FC, or the team’s 6-2 defeat to Seattle two weeks ago. In each of those games, there seemed to be two versions of the Timbers on the field, something we’ve seen at other times this season. In games at the LA Galaxy or the team’s first visit to Austin, the Timbers went from calm to the worst version of themselves in seemingly a matter of moments. When things went wrong, problems snowballed.
But tonight, Portland stayed focus. It was one of their most consistent efforts of the season, and even from a game where a high-profile signing, Santiago Moreno, made his Timbers’ debut, the team’s whistle-to-whistle consistency was probably their biggest positive.
“When you defend like we defended today,” Savarese explained, “when you are able to do the things that we did in the first half, and when you have the tranquility to be able to score those goals in moments in which we understood exactly what was asked for us to do, it showed a very mature performance.”
Ultimately, the team gave everybody reason for hope. For most of August, too many conversations about the Timbers have had to cite the team’s talent but quickly transition to their results. The overall theme: Portland is not playing to its talent level. Hope was starting to fade.
Tonight, though, the Timbers visited one of the top teams in MLS and left with a good result. The talent, it appears, is still there. It just needs to make Sunday less of an exception, more of a rule.