Call it a smash and grab if you like. The grab is the important part.
Portland Timbers 2 went into Phoenix, Arizona, last Saturday and took all three points, claiming a 1-0 victory that helped secure the Western Conference’s sixth seed in the now-arrived United Soccer League Playoffs. But Rising FC, commensurate with a team that was vying for the top spots in the conference, was the game’s most-dangerous side, leaving both optimism and caution lingering ahead of Friday’s quarterfinal rematch at Rising Sports Complex (7:30pm PT, ESPN+).
“I just think it was a mature performance for the guys over 90 minutes,” head coach Cameron Knowles said, when asked to reflect on the victory. Against a Rising team that, with players like Didier Drogba, has more experience than T2, mature is a telling word, especially given T2 have had a number of games this year where they were on the other end of similar results.
“We had some moments where we had to dodge some bullets, weather the storm,” Knowles remembered. “There were some really big plays in there, clearing balls off the line and what not, blocking shots. And then, finding that moment that changed the game, that wins the game for us.”
“That’s what we’ve been talking about, really, this last month,” Knowles said, “about how these games are going to hang on a knife’s edge, and the team that can execute in those moments is the team that’s going to come away with it. I think that kind of performance from our guys is a great shot in the arm headed into the playoffs.”
It’s at least a proof of concept. In the team’s other match against Rising this year, T2 largely controlled play only to be picked apart in moments at Providence Park during a 4-1 loss. Though that scoreline was uncharacteristically lopsided, similar dynamics have played out against other top teams in the Western Conference, like Orange County FC and Sacramento Republic FC. In those games, T2 looked like the controlling side for large parts of the game only to drop points amid their opponents’ moments of execution.
On Saturday, T2 was the team that flipped the script. T2 was the team that executed. T2 was the team that came away with full points.
“We talk about it every week,” Knowles explained. “As long as we’re learning something from each performance, and as long as we can take something from the next performance, then we’re heading down a good path … Those (previous) results have gone against us, but I think [the win in Phoenix] does speak of the growth of the team, of the mindset headed into this critical part of the season.”
The question, now, is how Phoenix will respond. Rising had a chance to claim a top-two spot in the West on Saturday, but now winless since Sept. 29, the conference’s third-place finisher will not only be seeking redemption but reversal. Having outshot T2 22 to 11 on Saturday (albeit only putting two of those shots on target), they have reason to believe a similar performance will lead to different results. Ultimately, though, they have to put themselves in a better position to overcome their shooting woes.
“We had our chance, we just didn’t finish them,” defender Joseph Farrell said after the game. “We had plenty of chances to go up one-nothing, we just didn’t do it.”
Rising head coach Rick Schantz had, well, a slightly different interpretation to offer.
“It’s getting difficult to play against 12 players,” Schantz said, according to AZCentral.com. “They gave us a bunch of fouls that shouldn’t have been given to us … I can’t stand it. It’s disgusting. These guys are pros, they’re out here working their butts off, and we get local referees that just come out here and want to be important, and I’m getting tired of it. For some of us, this is our livelihood, and this is our future. And for these guys, it’s just a Saturday night game."
Phoenix’s leading scorer, Chris Cortez, missed Saturday’s game, an absence Drogba’s presence for the last part of the season helps offset. Jason Johnson, one of the team’s dangermen on Saturday, has nine MLS goals over three seasons at the top level, and defender Saad Abdul-Salaam was a one-time starter at fullback for Sporting Kansas City. Like many successful independent USL teams, Rising lacks for neither experience nor talent, making Saturday’s victory all the more telling for T2.
“That fact that they beat us [in Portland] and we’ve beat them there, I think it just sort of sets up for a really good third match,” Knowles said. “The fact that [the rematch] comes so quickly is, it’s going to be good. It’s going to be interesting to see what they do. It’s going to be interesting to see what we do.”
What both teams need to do is play better. It’s the playoffs, after all, but even in the face of last week’s performance, both coaching staffs will ask for more. Wide open chances for Phoenix players like forward Kevaughn Frater and attacker Solomon Asante will be seen as missed opportunities, ones that, in a win-or-else situation, have to be converted. For Portland, last-ditch efforts from defenders Arturo Diz Pe, Modou Jadama and Marco Farfan will, if T2’s performance improves, not be needed.
If those heroics are needed, though, T2 has shown it can still win. They did so on Saturday, just as they’ve done through their seven other road victories this season. A win at playoff-qualifying Swope Park Rangers, as well as results at Saint Louis FC and top-seeded Orange County, show Portland’s capable of beating strong teams on the road.
That mentality, as well as the team needing not be perfect to take results, shows how much the group has grown. That maturity may be the main reason for optimism during T2’s desert return.