20210919 timbers huddle

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Timbers are back in the win column after Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Los Angeles FC at Providence Park, but there was a slight twist to their fourth win in five games. For the first time in that stretch, the Timbers saw an opponent comeback to tie a game, which means for the first time that stretch, Portland was asked to respond.

In Sunday’s 68th minute, Portland midfielder George Fochive gave that response. Awaiting a deflected Sebastián Blanco cross just outside LAFC’s six-yard box, Fochive headed home his second goal of the season, breaking a 1-1 tie while securing Portland’s winning margin. With the victory, the Timbers move into fifth place in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference.

“You can see a team that is very strong, that is difficult to be broken down, and that, offensively, can hurt you,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said, when asked about Portland’s current 4-0-1 (W-L-T) stretch. “The good thing, now, is the guys all are in a good mental state, so that whoever comes into the game really performs and gives us what we need at that particular moment.”

Beyond claiming three points, Portland also gained a valuable measure of where they stand in their improvement. Over the course of the last four years, LAFC has been one of the Timbers’ most valuable barometers, so much so that the teams are now 4-4-4 against each other since LAFC joined the league in 2018. Los Angeles also sits right next to the playoff line in the Western Conference – one point below seventh place Minnesota United. In so many ways, LAFC’s visit provided a litmus test, indicating how much the Timbers have moved on from their mid-summer struggles.

Over Sunday’s early moments, though, it was unclear whether there was much difference between the side. LAFC and Portland were able the threaten in equal measure, even if the Timbers broke through first. Dairon Aspilla’s close-range header may have given Portland a lead in the 21st minute, but it wasn’t because one team was so much better than the other.

When LAFC converted a penalty kick six minutes later, the game seemed headed for the typical competitive, attacking affair we’ve become accustomed to from these two teams. And to a certain extent, Sunday’s game was that. Both teams continued to challenge the other’s defense throughout the match. But thanks to regular stream of fouls awarded by referee Chris Penso, Sunday’s match never established the rhythm we’d expect from Portland-LAFC. Instead, as the game moved past its hour mark, if felt like night’s third goal would be its last.

Fochive played a huge part in generating that last goal. Substituted into the game in the 61st minute, the Timbers midfielder made an immediate impact, attacking the space between Portland’s attacking and holding midfield lines, making it difficult for LAFC to play out of their end of the field. Twice in his first minutes on the field, Fochive intercepted passes and held play in Portland’s attacking third. His aggression also allowed him to be in high on the pitch when Blanco crossed for his goal.

“I thought we could win more second balls in the midfield,” Fochive said of his approach when coming on. “I felt like the game was a little bit slow – mistakes on both sides. But I think what was going to make the difference was to be ready for second balls and finish our attacks …

“On [the goal], I see Seba, who always puts the cross in. I felt like we weren’t always there to finish it. If we had more numbers in the box, we’d get a goal or two.”

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Perhaps the most important thing about Sunday’s result is how similar it felt to Wednesday’s, even though that night’s result was a draw. In the team’s approach, though, there is a consistency of effort, focus, and execution the Timbers were unable to reach over the first four-plus months of this season.

Yet ever since Portland kicked off its 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders on August 29, they have been the team was saw on Sunday. We saw it the week after Seattle, when the Timbers won in Houston; the week after Houston, when the team won at Vancouver; and this week against Colorado, when the team salvaged a point despite playing the second half a player down.

That consistency was the commonality between those games is a huge step forward from where Portland was a month ago.

“The belief is there,” Savarese said. “The guys are doing a great job to make sure that they concentrate … Practice is more intense. The ball movement has improved. The physical aspect, the fitness - we're better. We can endure a lot more. All of these areas have been very important to being better balanced emotionally.”

That balance makes the Timbers’ new standards easy to discern: maintain that consistency; and, use their new baseline to grow. If the team’s consistency has pushed off some of Portland’s worst-case scenarios, the potential of the squad’s talent can come back into focus.

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