20210915 timbers celebration huddle

PORTLAND, Ore. — For the first time in three games, the Portland Timbers were handed a major piece of adversity. Then it happened again, and again. Three times on Wednesday night against the Colorado Rapids, the Timbers were handed obstacles they hadn’t faced during their three-match winning run.

That the team came back to claim a 2-2 result may have told us as much about the Timbers as any of those wins. After losing defender Bill Tuiloma to a late first half red card, Portland offset Colorado’s second-half leads with goals from Felipe Mora and Sebastián Blanco, the latter coming in stoppage team as the Timbers extended their unbeaten run to four.

“It’s how proud I feel about all the players, and how they performed,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said after the match, describing his feelings about his team’s performance. “[It’s] how they stayed disciplined, how they believed in the game in order to fight through it and be able to get a very important point at home that is going to be crucial to us in continuing to add up and stay in the playoff zone.”

The result leaves Portland fifth in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference with 34 points in 24 games.

“When you see a group like this, going down 1-0 … then going 2-1, and towards the last few minutes still giving everything that we have in order to come back in this game,” Savarese said, “it shows that the team has character. It shows that the guys are working with each other, that there’s unity. And everyone on the bench was ready to step in.”

Tuiloma’s red was the night’s first major setback, with the team’s starting right back picking up yellows in the 33rd and 42nd minutes. Portland responded well coming out of halftime but still conceded the night’s opening goal to Jonathan Lewis in the 64th minute. Mora countered with his season’s 10th goal three minutes later only for Michael Barrios to seemingly break Timbers hearts near the end of regulation time. His improbable “scross” from the end line went over goalkeeper Steve Clark’s head and inside Portland’s far post.

With six minutes of extra time, the Timbers had enough time to respond, but after 45 minutes of playing down a man, the team could have also been exhausted. Instead, Portland needed less than a minute of bonus time to equalize for a second time, with a pass sent behind Colorado’s right side allowing Dairon Asprilla to create the night’s final goal.

“Of course, we were a little disappointed, because they scored a goal in the last three minutes [of regulation time],” Blanco said about going down, 2-1. “But we talked on the field, and I said Darion, Felipe, me, stay forward. Don’t come back to defend anymore. Wait for the ball …”

“We believe in us,” Blanco continued. “We knew that we would have another opportunity to score a goal.”

Wednesday’s were a series of obstacles the Timbers hadn’t faced in three games — three shutout wins that helped get the team’s season back on track. As the concept of a shutout implies, Portland never trailed during those wins at Seattle, Houston and Vancouver, and until after they lost a man on Wednesday, they didn’t go down a goal against Colorado, either. In terms of 11-v-11 play, Portland’s shutout streak continues.

In terms of the what matters on the scoreboard, though, the Timbers not only had to respond but do so under circumstances that felt like a longshot. Colorado was not only up a man but, in terms of points per game, is the Western Conference’s second-best team. Only one team in the West has conceded fewer goals this year than the Rapids, adding to the length of Portland’s odds. Nobody would have thought twice about the 10-man Timbers coming up short.

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That’s part of the reason Wednesday’s feels so telling. At so many stops, there was a path of least resistance. There was a no-risk, no-shame opportunity to accept defeat. Instead, the Timbers not only responded but, at moments in the second half, pushed for more than a point. A couple of times, that push may have exposed the backline to more risk than necessary, but overall, the team played as if 10-v-11 was no excuse.

“Today, of course, our desire was to get three points at home,” Savarese said, “but due to the conditions of how the game changed, the point was crucial for us to continue on that path that we set forth.”

“We’ve building up [over the last] four matches, already,” he said. “This is not the only match in which we have shown a tremendous performance; a determination in a [unified] way to get results. This is our fourth match in which we consider the team is hungry to want to fight all the way through and try to get into the playoffs.”

Too often, games with early red cards feel like aberrations. One-offs, in soccer parlance. They’re games that matter in the standings and record books, but in terms of what they tell us about a team’s potential going forward, they rarely seem to matter. Teams have to spend the bulk of their time planning for even strength. When you go down a player? Often it’s less about preparation, more about heart.

That’s what we may have learned about the Timbers on Wednesday. We may have learned a little bit about their heart. In the face of every excuse to start preparing for their next game, they kept their focus on the field. They took pride in the fight they were presented, and they showed qualities that will make them even tougher when even numbers are restored. Portland showed they’re willing to embrace their obstacles.

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