PORTLAND, Ore. – Every game that Brian Fernandez has started for the Portland Timbers, the team has scored at least two goals. Even in the match he didn’t start, the team averaged 3.6 goals per 90 minutes with him on the field. From the moment the team’s new Designated Player arrived in mid-May, the Timbers’ attack has been transformed.
Wednesday hinted there may be greater things to come. Though the LA Galaxy started a team that had to balance a weekend trip to Cincinnati, Providence Park saw the Timbers’ most commanding performance of the year, with a goal scored at the end of a 20-pass sequence capping a 4-0 win in front of 16,235 in Goose Hollow.
“It felt very good to get the first win in the new stadium,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, after the game. “It felt very good to not concede any goals. It felt very good that we found the goals in the right moments, and that everybody competed in the best possible way.
“Even though we can continue to improve – because we have room in which we can be better – overall, it was a very good performance.”
The win moved Portland into the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup, where they’ll face the winner of tomorrow night’s meeting between Los Angeles FC and the San Jose Earthquakes at Banc of California Stadium. Though the coming match will require an additional trip south, the quarterfinal spot matches the Timbers’ finish in last year’s competition.
The night’s attacking performance, however, is one that hasn’t been matched since October 6, 2019, when the Timbers posted a 4-1 victory at Real Salt Lake – a win that sparked the team’s run toward last year’s MLS Cup. The four-goal margin of victory was the greatest since October 15, 2017, when D.C. United fell 4-0 at Providence Park on a night when Sebastián Blanco scored the team’s final two goals.
Blanco starred again tonight, though his performance was only one part of What We’ll Remember from the Round of 16 triumph:
The lopsided numbers
Mid-way through the first half, the Timbers held a 3-2 edge in shots. By halftime, that advantage was 10-2, a margin that helped the team return to the locker room up three goals.
“We started and tried to adapt quickly into the match,“ Savarese said, “(and) tried to understand some of the things they tried to do. Once we adapted and understood some of the few little things that we needed to do better, the team just became more dangerous.”
More dangerous, and more confident.
“Once you score a goal, you play with a confidence, and you can build up little by little. And once you go up 3-0, the important thing is that we keep our heads in the right place: that we keep on doing things in a better way; that we keep on fighting in the right way; keeping the ball; doing the right things that we wanted to do.”
The fulltime numbers reflected that “wanted to do:” a 19-7 edge in shots; 569 passes attempted at an 86 percent clip; 64 percent possession. It would be too much to call the performance Barcelona-esque, but during the extended spell of possession the team leveraged before Jorge Moreira’s night-capping goal, a Guardiolian feel had begun to surface. Portland always seemed two moves ahead of an LA team which, at that point of the night, had run out of ideas.
The Galaxy’s lineup choices certainly played a part, but Daniel Steres, one of the night’s starters in central defense, is the team’s leader in MLS minutes this season. Emmanuel Boateng, Servando Carrasco, Diedie Traore and Dave Romney have all made multiple starts in the league. Perry Kitchen is a former U.S. international, while Efrain Álvarez may be the best prospect in Major League Soccer. It wasn’t LA’s strongest team, but Guillermo Barros Schelotto didn’t start pushovers.
Nobody expects 569 passes, on any night. And nobody will going forward. That the Timbers could do that against any collection of MLS talent, though, is still worthy of note.
Fernandez, Blanco shine
Fernandez’s influence on his new team has been so profound, it’s hard to believe he’s only been with them for a little over a month. But in that month, the 24-year-old Argentine has already collected seven goals in five appearances across all competitions. After Wednesday’s one-goal, one-assist performance, the team’s newest acquisition is averaging a goal 54.4 minutes. Over the course of an entire MLS season (which, nobody plays, of course), that rate would produce 56.25 goals.
Early on, the Timbers have an entirely new attack with Fernandez on board, so new that it’s tempting to say they’re an entirely different team. At a minimum, Portland’s far more dangerous than they were two months ago.
Part of that danger is the space Fernandez is creating for others, something Blanco used to full effect against LA. It was clear on his 37th-minute goal – the best effort of the night; one that found Matt Lampson’s upper-left-hand corner from 26 yards out – as well as three minutes before, when Blanco’s long pass from near the center circle sent Jeremy Ebobisse behind the Galaxy defense. With so much attention paid to Fernandez, Ebobisse was able to make a number of run from deep, wide positions, with his play on Blanco’s 34th-minute ball leading to Fernandez’s goal.
“Today, we had very good movement in every place (on the field),” Blanco said, “It’s better (when we play) like this, because we have more options.
“Today, we played so well,” he continued, “(but) I think we can be better. But it’s good if we can play like today, because we have very important games going forward.”
For his part, Fernandez added a helper late – a beautiful ball played across the top of the penalty area from the left flank. Showing equivalent skill, Moreira’s finish allowed Fernandez to record his first assist as a Timber, a number that looks positively modest compared to his escalating goal total.
A glimpse of the team’s potential
Overall, the night provided a glimpse of the Timbers’ potential, and while it would be foolish to expect four-goal games to become the norm, the threat of posting such one-sided marks may prove something opponents have to allow for. At some point, teams will have to adjust to an attack that features all of Fernandez, Blanco, Ebobisse and, over the night’s final 12 minutes, a former MLS Most Valuable Player, Diego Valeri.
At one point, it was theory, what this collection of talent can do. With a few more performances like this, that theory may become law.
“We spoke about how we wanted to have more complete performances,” Savarese explained, “and that’s what we did today. But still, it can be better.”
It’s too early for anyone to be bold, but with the night’s game film, opposing coaches will have to reconsider how Portland can be slowed. The potential of this group is starting to shine through.