BEAVERTON, Ore. – A near miss in California against Sacramento Republic FC this Saturday has put Portland Timbers 2’s dream of hosting a USL quarterfinal in jeopardy, but even on Tuesday, ahead of the team’s final home regular-season game, perspective on the team’s rise isn’t far from the adidas Timbers Training Center fields.
“It is always difficult to lose, especially when you feel like you played a good match,” frequent captain Renzo Zambrano, one of the team’s starting midfielders, said in Spanish ahead of Reno 1868 FC’s Wednesday visit to the University of Portland’s Merlo Field (7pm PT | TICKETS). “But as far as how we feel, all of our bigger objectives are still there.”
Such is the state of head coach Cameron Knowles’ team after the weekend’s 1-0 loss in California’s capital, with a sixth-minute goal from Cameron Iwasa preventing Timbers 2 from leapfrogging the Republic into the top half of the Western Conference table.
That’s where the home playoff games lie for the first round of the conference quarterfinals. That’s where, with two games to go, Timbers 2 are still setting their sites.
“It’d be amazing,” defender Modou Jadama, another frequent team captain, said about the possibility of a playoff game at home. “It’s one of the main things we want, having that home game not just for us but for fans of the club. It’d be an amazing opportunity for them.”
To get there, Portland will almost certainly need to claim their first victory of the season over Reno, a team that’s taken six points in two games from T2, including a 2-1, spring victory at Merlo Field. In both games, Reno used goals in the games’ final 15 minutes to keep Portland from securing results. Now even on points with T2 for fifth in the Western Conference, Reno shares Portland’s dream of hosting a first-round game at home.
“They’re a real organized team and have a real good fight,” Jadama explained, when asked what’s given Portland problems. “They fight a lot for every ball, and they have some deadly forwards, too.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Zambrano, who said Reno was “a good team, like every team in the USL.” But Jadama and his teammate also agreed on another commonality within the teams’ previous meetings. In the eyes of both T2 mainstays, Portland has the better team.
“We had more opportunities,” Jadama explained. “We just didn’t take our chances when we played them. Even when we went away to play them,” during a 1-0, June 30 loss, “we had more chances.”
That game was decided when Reno forward Daniel Musovski who, for the third time this season, scored after the 75th minute against T2, continuing a pattern that started with a brace at Merlo Field on April 21.
“The last-minute goal was unfortunate,” Jadama concedes, “but we’re a completely different team, now.”
Only seven T2 players have appeared in both games against Reno. Jadama is one, as is Zambrano, but other names on the list highlight just how much change Portland’s undergone this year. Attacker Darixon Vuelto is no longer with the team, while forward Augustine Williams – an important bench piece throughout the season – has only made nine starts.
“We’re more mature,” Jadama says, alluding to a team whose lineups have become more consistent as the USL season has played out.
“When we played them, we made too many mistakes, in all respects, across all levels of the field,” Zambrano says, harshly but unapologetically. “It’s a responsibility all of us have to take on, and I think we have to make sure those little mistakes don’t cost us games.”
At the beginning of the year, those costs were high, with T2 coming from ahead to lose on four occasions during the season’s first three-and-a-half months. But the last of those occasions was June 30 in Reno. Since, Portland has only dropped two points from winning positions.
“Overall, we have to be happy in the direction we’re going,” Zambrano explained, “because if we continue playing like this, we’re going to keep improving.”
Which bodes well for T2’s chances to reach their ultimate goal, whether they secure a home playoff game or not.
“It’s always important to win,” Zambrano says, “but for us, it’s clear that to be champions, we have to be able to win important games, no matter where they are.
“Here or on the road, we’re going to have to win big games to be the best team in USL. Sometimes we’ll be able to play our game, other times not, but we’ve always got to be able to get a win.”