PORTLAND, Ore. – In the fairytale, there would have been a third goal. Or a fourth. And Saturday was supposed to be a fairytale. But after three months of games on the road, the Portland Timbers returned home to something else – something more reminiscent of sports’ unpredictable reality than something you’d write yourself. Though they nearly compensated for early errors that dug a first-half hole, the Timbers opened the remodeled Providence Park with a 3-2 loss to Los Angeles FC, leaving the field with mixed feelings after their long-awaited 2019 home debut.
“I’m pissed off that we didn’t win,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said afterward. “It’s clear as that.
“We wanted to give our fans a celebration, give them the possibility to get three points at home against a very good team. But, in the same token, I’m very proud of the performance. I think the second half was very good.”
Cristhian Paredes scored within a minute after halftime, and with his fourth goal of the year, Brian Fernandez gave 84th-minute hope that the fairytale could come true. But the Timbers were swimming against first-half goals from Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, and with the Latif Blessing finish that was bookended by Portland's second-half goals, LAFC had the scores they needed to secure their result.
“It was just they scored one more goal, because at the end, we had our chances,” captain Diego Valeri said, when asked about the difference between the two teams. “They had their chances, but we played a much better game. We were the team that tried to dominate the game, and in the second half, we did it well. We have to work on details to perform at the same level.”
There were large stretches of Saturday’s game where Valeri’s description was apt, possibly because the Timbers needed some dominance to make up the ground they’d lost. Entering the night with a 10-1-4 record, LAFC was handed three defensive mistakes, pouncing on each to score their night’s goals. Because those errors, the Timbers had to be the match’s defining force, eventually claiming the game’s edges in shots, shots on target, possession, corners, and tackles won.
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“Little moments,” Savarese said, when asked for his view on the teams’ differences. “Little moments for them. Those moments, they capitalized, and then things went a little bit away (from us).
“(They found) an early goal, and then, when we were playing really well, (they made it) 3-1. That allowed them to be able to feel, again, comfortable.”
“I think the difference was LA was effective,” midfielder Diego Chara explained. “We made a lot of mistakes at the back … But I think we need to take the good things from today and prepare for the next game.”
The good things were the response, with the Timbers coming out of halftime and scoring before the clock hit 46:00. They were the pressure the team maintained not only in the period that followed but the period after the first goal, before LAFC went up two. They were in the myriad physical battles that saw Portland double up their visitors’ tackle total (18-9), and they were in the urgency that Jorge Villafaña and Jeremy Ebobisse used to set up the overheard kick which, for the fourth time in three games, got Fernandez on the scoresheet.
That the Timbers could play so well for such long stretches and still lose was a testament to their opponent, who needed few chances to post their 11th win of the season. There are reasons why Bob Bradley’s team is on pace to post Major League Soccer’s best record of all time. Converting three of five shots on target was Saturday’s most obvious.
But in the way Portland responded, as well as the progress they made from their 4-1 loss at Banc of California on March 10, the Timbers showed LAFC might be vulnerable; or, at least, left open the possibility that a performance less generous in the gifts they gave their visitors would have produced a better result.
“We fought through it,” Savarese said. “We played very well. We created chances, and unfortunately, we got penalized in some moments. But we showed that we belong …
“We’ve got to continue to improve, but it was, I think, an interesting matchup, and if I was outside, it would be a game I wanted to see. It had a little bit of everything, like every rivalry should have.”
That Portland and Los Angeles FC finally felt like a true rivalry may be one of the lasting memories of the night. Over the teams’ three meetings last season, talk around the matchup pointed to a special animus, even if it was impossible to call first-year foes “rivals.” Into the second year of LAFC’s existence, though, the animosity is still there, not only in the physical play that defined Saturday’s game but in the late-match altercation that took place in front of the visitors’ bench.
The main memories of the night, though, will be of Providence Park’s debut, as well as the game’s score. As the feeling at Saturday’s final whistle reminded, there’s only so far you can get in a memory of sports without thinking of the outcome. As much as we’ll remember the 4,000 strong on the east side, the Timbers Army stacked to the rafters from two hours before kickoff, and the feeling of relief at a team finally returning home, we’ll also remember how close the Timbers came without getting a result.
That disappointment, though, is ultimately part of the reason we come to the park. We never come certain one team will win, nor do we come for only the game itself. We come for the event, the uncertainty, the hope of a great performance and, in the totality of all those things, a memory that validates our commitment. We don’t come for something scripted. We come for a greater reward.
No, the Timbers didn’t get the fairytale on Saturday, but the memories were there, still: in the culture; in the effort; in the goals; in the spectacle. Even in defeat, we were reminded why we’ve gravitated to Providence Park.