Marvin Loria #2, Timbers vs. Houston, 6.22.19

PORTLAND, Ore. – The last 15 minutes of Saturday’s game felt like a prolonged heat check, a phenomenon from another sport which, after three video-game goals helped put the Portland Timbers up 4-0 on the visiting Houston Dynamo, felt apt for the soccer field. Shots from longer distances, or with more difficult techniques, fired at Joe Willis with no regard for conscience threatened to extend the night’s total beyond Wednesday’s level, when the Timbers put another four spot on the LA Galaxy in Open Cup. Over the last four days, Portland’s attack has clicked with such confidence, four has felt like less ceiling than floor.

The end result was not only another four-goal victory but another reminder of the new world the team has occupied since striker Brian Fernandez’s arrival. There’s still no game since his first start on May 19 in Philadelphia where the Timbers have been held to fewer than two goals. Buoyed by his inertia, there’s an assuredness with which players like Marvin Loría are converting scissor kicks, as he did to open the night’s scoring, and Jeremy Ebobisse is burying far-post, cutback shots from near 20 yards. With Fernandez also tallying a highlight reel goal in the second half, his confidence is infecting the squad.

“We’re back at home and we’re feeling some momentum, and we want to capitalize on it,” Ebobisse said in the minutes after the match.

“You want to make sure that your (attacking) players get looks on goal every game,” he explained. “You’re going to miss some chances, but today, all four of us got our goals,” including Diego Valeri’s penalty kick conversion in his view, “and that’s a big boost for us.”

With the victory, Portland climbs from 12th to 10th in the Western Conference, a place that’s far below their end-of-year goal but somewhat reassuring given their schedule, thus far. Having playing 10 more matches on the road than at home, the team’s 1.21 points-per-game (ninth in the West) leaves them within reach of teams like Real Salt Lake and the San Jose Earthquakes – teams that are straddling the playoff line in the conference. If the rest of the season is about recovering from the team’s prolonged stretch on the road, Saturday provided a good start.

What We’ll Remember from Saturday, though, fits within a narrower scope: an offense reaching new levels; a defense rounding into form; a debutant reaping the rewards of over a year’s work. What that means for the rest of the season will play out over the next four months, but what it meant for Saturday night was a second straight Timbers rout.

The explosion after a slow start

Perhaps we won’t remember the first 35 minutes of Saturday’s match were kind of a mess, with a hamstrung Houston seemingly intent on making the match as difficult as possible. Portland responded to the effort, matching the six fouls the Dynamo committed in that stretch with six of their own. By the time Portland finally scored, four players were already in the referee’s book.

When Portland broke through, though, the night completely changed, perhaps because the opening goal was so special. Running onto a lofted ball headed down by Jorge Moreira, Loría leapt and angled his body to the field, throwing one leg then the other forward to increase the force behind his shot. The result left almost no time for Willis to react, leaving him beat at his near post.

From there, the match opened up. Portland would finish the game with a 24-9 edge in shots, 501 passes completed at an 84 percent clip, and 10 shots on target. Come night’s end, Willis had been subjected to a barrage.

“We have some firepower,” goalkeeper Steve Clark said, a succinct answer that could have stood on its own. “There’s going to be a lot of goals. These guys are very, very good players.”

As was the case after Wednesday’s game, it’s worth a reminder: Four goals and 500 passes won’t happen every night. But perhaps an equally important reminder, after the second game it’s happened in a row: When things are going well, the team’s proven capable of posting these results.

Back to back clean sheets

It’s been some time since the worries of the season’s opening month defined Portland’s defense. Thanks to six-straight games allowing exactly one goal to close the road trip, the problems the team experienced against opponents like Cincinnati, San Jose, and Colorado feel like they're from another era. Whatever questions were left unanswered by those early problems were addressed long ago.

That doesn’t mean the defense was at the level the team wanted. Coming back to Providence Park this month, the Timbers were still looking for their first clean sheet, a search that persisted after games against Los Angeles FC and, last week in Open Cup, Seattle Sounders FC. Now, though, after back-to-back shutouts – one in Open Cup play, one in MLS play – Portland not only has a clean sheet but, suddenly, a small unblemished run.

“I’m very proud that we didn’t concede a goal, because it’s something that we have been looking (for),” head coach Giovanni Savarese said.

“It was great, because I think the defense enjoyed the way we played, today. The guys were able to keep the ball, find the goals in the right moments, and we just have to continue to improve.”

This is where we note that the Galaxy were severely hampered by absences and a busy schedule. Same for the Dynamo. Still, when the Timbers had similar fortunes earlier this season, the scoresheet never stayed at zero. Whatever the team’s doing differently, now, it’s taken the defense to another level.

Loría’s first act

Perform well enough, and you’re doing interviews on the field. Loría experienced that for the first time tonight, after which he received another, more meaningful reward. Turning away from’s cameras after this last recorded answer, the Costa Rican international found hundreds of lingering Timbers Army members chanting, “Marvin! Marvin! Marvin!”

Not a bad first night in MLS. Loría had appeared for the Timbers before, putting in a stand out performance in U.S. Open Cup last year against San Jose. Since, though, Loría’s minutes have been confined to the United Soccer League, leaving tonight’s start and opening goal as a reward for over a year’s time with the club.

“Last year, I was only able to play with T2,” he explained, in Spanish, when asked about the significance of his debut within the context of his career. “I was grateful, but I was also preparing for this moment. Now that I got this opportunity, I’m just happy I was able to respond by showing how thankful I am.”

After an excellent debut with T2 in 2018, Loría’s chance with the first team had become much anticipated, and he didn’t disappoint. Though it would be a mistake to overstate how much one goal changes his status within the roster, at bare minimum, he’s given himself an unforgettable moment to build from.