PORTLAND, Ore. – Seven matches into the Giovanni Savarese era, the big breakthrough finally came, arriving in perhaps the most resounding way possible. Against the team sitting atop Major League Soccer, Savarese’s Portland Timbers delivered their most emphatic result of the young MLS season, knocking New York City FC from the ranks of the unbeatens with a 3-0 victory at Providence Park.
“This gives us a week to work and to believe that what we are doing is the right thing,” Savarese explained after the match. “It shows the players that when [they] commit, together, to the same goal, we can achieve amazing things.”
Amazing may seem like an overstatement, given the young nature of the MLS season, but the heights to which NYCFC had been playing justify Savarese’s view. Through seven games, Patrick Vieira’s team had collected 17 points, keeping an unbeaten record in four road games thanks to a series of comeback victories.
New York City had not only been MLS’ best. They had been the league’s most resilient, adding another layer to Portland’s second win of the season.
“These victories allow you to continue to believe in the path that you’re going,” Savarese said.
That path was a rocky one over the season’s first month-plus, waiting six matches to claim win one under their new coach. Even that win, a 3-2 one last Saturday against Minnesota United FC, came with some nervous moments, with the Loons pulling within one after a late Portland own goal.
Eight days later, however, the Timbers had left such wobbles behind. Though NYCFC racked up 74.6 percent of the match’s possession, they only put one shot on target from inside Portland’s penalty area. And despite averaging 2.29 goals per game in their first seven outings, Vieira’s team rarely threatened Portland goalkeeper Jeff Attinella.
“We knew going into the game that they were a very good team …,” Timbers defender Liam Ridgewell said. “It was big for us just to try and stay with our runners, keep compact, and they saw a lot of a ball. But they didn’t really get anywhere. That was probably our main objective.”
That, and stopping the late match concessions that had undermined Portland over their three previous outings. Between matches against Chicago, Orlando and Minnesota, the Timbers had allowed five goals in the games’ final 10 minutes. On Sunday, Portland not only maintained their clean sheet, but they only conceded one shot on target.
The biggest factor in that turnaround, according to Timbers’ defender Larrys Mabiala? Focus.
“The difference is that we knew that it was our biggest problem,” Mabiala said. “We’ve played many games where [late goals] happen. Everybody was really focused on the last minutes.”
The result was a proof of concept that helps Portland move away from its first month-and-a-half’s struggles. Then, as the team compiled a 0-3-2 record in their five-match road start, there was a tacit explanation for the performance, one that went beyond the new staff and players in the squad. When the team returned home, the theory went, the results would turn around. Until that actually happened, though, that explanation was less theory than hypothesis.
Now, that theory stands on firmer ground. Not only have the Timbers taken six points from their first two home matches, but on Sunday, they accomplished two things NYCFC’s seven other opponents failed to do: They took full points, and they kept the league’s leaders off the scoresheet.
For the first time this season, Portland played a consistent, victorious 90 minutes – a performance that would have been noteworthy in its own right, given the team’s previous struggles. That the performance came against an opponent reputed to be the best in Major League Soccer only adds to the results.
“We knew that was going to be a very big challenge,” Savarese said. “They have been doing really well, but I was very happy with the discipline, the maturity of our team, in how they approached the match, and especially how they worked through the entire match to get a complete result.”
The only downside to the result is the bye week that’s to come. Having played their best match of the season, Portland might loathe the 13-day wait until a return to the field in San Jose on May 5 (7:30pm PT, FOX 12 Oregon).
When they do return, though, it will be after two weeks of working with a new level of confidence. For the first time this season, the Timbers have gotten a glimpse of their potential.