Big win, small lessons as Portland's streak ties record mark

PORTLAND, Ore. – The tale of two halves ended up with a happy ending for the Portland Timbers, one that saw two players score their first goals of the season in a win as large as any the club's recorded this season. The victory also ran Portland's Major League Soccer unbeaten streak to a club-record-tying 15 games, even if, half and hour into Saturday's 3-0 triumph over the Philadelphia Union, the game felt like more of a match of massive chicken than one that would produce three goals.

The breakthrough began toward the end of the first half, though, with the Timbers creating three separate half-chances before intermission's arrival. Urged by their head coach Giovanni Savarese to go after Philadelphia in the second half, Portland produced penalty kick goals from Diego Valeri and Dairon Asprilla before David Guzmán’s late consolidation produced the three-goal margin.

“In the first half, we were too slow with the ball movement,” Savarese admitted. “We had too many guys too far back, so we were not creating too much, going forward. I thought when [midfielder Andy] Polo went a little bit higher and found space going forward, then we started creating chances.

“The second half was much, much better. We went a little bit higher with our line. We pressed a little bit higher. And I think, after we found the first goal, the guys were able to dominate possession.”

That aggression nearly backfired early in the second half, with a strong read and save from Jeff Attinella keeping the game scoreless in the 51st minute. From that point on, though, it was all Timbers, in both control in creation. Alvas Powell’s moment of danger led to Valeri’s penalty conversion in the 58th minute, while it was Valeri who was taken down in the 83rd ahead of Asprilla’s insurance.

When Guzmán headed a set piece across goal and in in the 87th minute, the Timbers had a flattering result, albeit one with persuasive bottom lines. The three-goal win matches the team’s April victory over New York City FC for largest margin of the season. With three points, the team moved into second place in the Western Conference, with only FC Dallas keeping Portland from the place it finished at the end of last season.

And, in the goals by Asprilla and Guzmán, the Timbers saw two long-tenured players break onto the scoresheet for the first time this season, the type of outcome that reminds the whole locker room that, amid these long unbeaten runs, the perks get spread around.

“[The goal is] important,” Guzmán said after the game, “because this year has been a little difficult for me.

“This year, I had the World Cup, and I was there spending a lot of time away from the team. But while I was there the team was doing a lot of good things, winning a lot of games, going a long time without losing, so it’s been very difficult to win back a place in the starting lineup. But the coach was willing to give me this chance, and being able to respond with a goal, and the team playing so well, I hope it puts me in a good place to compete for another chance come the next game.”

Asprilla had been getting regular time, be it off the bench or in the starting lineup, but in getting the opportunity to convert the night’s second penalty kick, the Colombian attacker showed how important it was for him to share in the night’s rewards.

“It's always good for a forward to able to score,” Savarese said, “especially when it’s your first goal … He has been very close, a couple of opportunities, and it was great to get us this win, this goal, his first goal of the season.”

These are the type of footnotes that start accumulating when teams go on runs. The small victories of a player’s first goal, the sharing of the penalty spoils, start to become as memorable as the wins themselves. And in the little moments of danger – the points where you have to go back to the locker room, decide to turn a game on its ear – you develop the tools you need to keep the streak going forward.

“We used Alvas much better running forward, using his speed on the flank (on the second half),” Valeri explained, trying to define the tools the team used to turn their night around. “First half, like Montreal and Houston, Philadelphia tried to be very narrow and compact. They didn’t let us create, build up through the middle … when the game opened up, we found more space to create more chances.”

It’s one of the reasons why the lessons of the Philadelphia win may, in hindsight, linger with a slightly conflicted tone. The final score looks impressive, but it also flattered the underlying form. But within that underlying form lies a number of smaller, important caveats – moments the team can build on from their 15-game milestone.

“More than the performance, it was a good, good win,” Savarese said. “The team had to know how to be able to get this win, and that was very important to them.”