This isn’t a game that, on paper, those outside the team should have expected the Portland Timbers to win. Yet there they were, in stoppage time against the New England Revolution, generating a chance that would have given them an unlikely one-goal victory at Gillette Stadium.
That the Timbers didn’t get that 2-1 result when Lucas Melano failed to redirect Sebastián Blanco’s late cross into an open goal, though, may be the only lament from a well-earned, 1-1 draw in Massachusetts.
“This is a very difficult place to play because they press the entire match,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese explained, his team having extended New England’s winless streak to nine games. “They are very athletic. They made the game very, very choppy, difficult. They never give up … we had to match up physically, and we did.”
Portland did over the course of 90-plus minutes in what may be remembered as some of the ugliest of the 2018 season. But such is life when a team is asked to fly six hours, play on two days rest in a match that’s their third in seven days.
Those are the nightmare scenarios those around Major League Soccer use to defend the circuit’s unique challenges. Instead of succumbing to them, though, Portland built on their victory from Wednesday, a 2-0 result over Toronto FC that snapped the team’s four-game losing drought. Now, with four points in two games, the Timbers are tied for fourth in the Western Conference.
“The guys gave everything, especially in the second half,” Savarese said. “I thought we were solid in the first half, but in the second half, we gave everything we had in order to be able to get a point.”
That first half was played to a standstill as the Timbers, having heavily rotated their team after Wednesday’s performance, tied the game in knots. Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, Liam Ridgewell and Andy Polo were all left out of the day’s team, while players like Samuel Armenteros and Jorge Villafaña were kept on the bench (and, eventually, never used). The players who were called on, though – names like Andrés Flores, David Guzmán, Cristhian Paredes and the day’s goal-scorer, Lawrence Olum – held Revolution to four shots total with none on target through that initial 45 minutes.
The first news of the second half was a sour note, for Portland, with first-choice goalkeeper Jeff Attinella leaving the game in the 56th minute after a hamstring injury. Two minutes later, a giveaway outside the Timbers penalty area from Olum led to a hopeful cross from New England’s Cristian Penilla, with Kelyn Rowe’s volley from the penalty spot drawing a rebound that Scott Caldwell eventually put home.
In the 70th minute, though, Olum had his redemption, beating Rowe to a loose ball in the penalty box ahead of his equalizing goal. Over the final 20 minutes, attacking soccer played a bigger part, with both sides seeing openings to claim full points.
“We felt that (Lucas) Melano could give us speed in the open spaces, because I thought they were wide open,” Savarese said, explaining his second half chances. “We had the possibility to counter, and then we did (switch to) a 4-4-1-1 (formation) in order to be able to cover more space wide as well as inside.”
The team had opened in the 4-3-1-2, diamond-midfield formation fans have seen through various points of the season. Come the second half, though, Portland expanded that approach before, in the match's final minutes, having to accept a more pragmatic outlook.
“I saw Guzmán a little bit tired,” Savarese said, of his final sub. “That’s why (Bill) Tuiloma came in. Everybody that came in did a fantastic job with the players who were already in the game.”
Some will have wanted the Timbers to do more, their starting lineup hinting the team would be content playing in survival mode. That, however, was the reality of the team’s challenge. The travel, the time change, the style of the Revolution all urged Savarese to be prudent. And in that prudence, the team nearly took a 2-1 result.
Now, however, Portland gets to deal with a new reality. Another trying week is over, and to the extent that the end of MLS’ schedule can ever feel normal, the Timbers can return to the routine they’re used to.
“Now we have to go back, practice, make sure that the guys get fresh, again, ready to be able to play the next game,” Savarese said, alluding to Sept. 8’s visit from the Colorado Rapids. “We always say, ‘One game at a time. Every game is tough.’