PORTLAND, Ore. – The even-year jinx was a thing. Was. As of Sunday, one of the Portland Timbers’ lingering curses is no more.
Since 2012, the Timbers have made the Major League Soccer postseason in every odd-numbered season: 2013, 2015 and 2017. Every even year, however, left the team has been on the outside looking in, giving fans one dose of disappointment for every bite of reward.
After Sunday’s 3-0 victory over Real Salt Lake, though, the only playoff question surrounding the 2018 Timbers, for now, is where the team will be seeded. A home game in the postseason’s first round still possible after fifth-place Portland’s second-straight three-goal victory.
“[The result] feels good, because it has been hard work, during the entire season …,” head coach Giovanni Savarese offered as his post-match evaluation. “You put all this work in, from preseason. You go on five matches away from home, at the beginning (of the season), and the guys fought all the way through.
“Today was a very good performance. Great result, for us. Very important for us to clinch the playoff. I’m extremely proud of everyone in the club.”
The match was more difficult than the final score implied, even if the scoreline was ultimately a fair one. Portland dominated the match’s first half-hour as their guest struggled to build play out of their defensive third. Come the end of the first half, though, Portland’s early goal through Larrys Mabiala was nearly equalized, with the first 20 minutes of the second half seeing the Claret and Cobalt continue their control.
“The first half, we played well – better than them …,” newly crowned Supporters’ Player of the Week Sebastián Blanco said, after the match. “The second half, the first 15 minutes, we couldn’t find the space. They played much better, attacked with more people.”
It was a span through which Steve Clark -- the midseason waiver acquisition who has made six starts in place of Jeff Attinella – saved the Timbers. In the 44th minute, Clark was called on for a reflex save on Kyle Beckerman, who drove a corner kick toward goal from eight yards out. Early in the second half, the Timbers’ defending was compromised on another corner, with Clark coming up big on a short-range shot from Justen Glad.
“We had the great Steve, today,” Mabiala said, with Blanco adding his newest teammate “was amazing” during the team’s brief spell of complacency.
“Very important saves in key moments,” was how Savarese described Clark’s stops, saying his goalkeeper, “kept us [in the game].”
“A lot of them were similar reactions,” Clark explained, saying RSL “were really whipping in the ball” on their set pieces. “I was just trying to stay calm … and trust my reactions.”
Those reactions allowed Diego Chara’s 68th-minute counter attacking goal to seal the game instead of get Portland even. It allowed Blanco’s 87th-minute tally to ice the game, as well as put the Argentine attacker (10 goals, 11 assists for the season) into the 10-goal/10-assist club, joining Diego Valeri at that elite level.
“After the second goal, we were calmer,” Blanco said. “We played better. We found the space.
“I think we were nervous in some moments because we were playing at home, so close to the playoffs. But now we are very happy, because we did a very good job.”
It was a job that allowed the team to enjoy a first: back-to-back MLS postseasons. For a team like the Portland Timbers, it would be disingenuous to suggest the accomplishment is a major one, but the playoff return does speak to a level of stability, one that, through eight seasons of the team’s MLS existence, the club had failed to reach before.
Consecutive postseason appearances should have come sooner. That they didn’t, however, doesn’t make this sign of progress any less notable.
“We always play to get the best position,” Blanco explained, when asked about the milestone. “The first goal is to make the playoffs. Now, we have a very, very hard two games, because we have one more in the (regular) season. After that, we have the knockout round, and the knockout maybe [on the road].
“I think we can win. We need to continue this spirit and play like today and the last game. With our supporters, we can fight with every team.”
It hints how progress, with the postseason in mind, now takes on a slightly different form. One week from today, the Timbers will take to Vancouver’s BC Place trying to keep hopes of a home knockout round game alive, but even breaks don’t go their way, the momentum the team has accrued from strong performances against FC Dallas and, in back-to-back weeks, Real Salt Lake must be maintained. A slip against the Whitecaps will thwart the progress the team’s made toward the postseason.
“Now we can talk about the playoffs,” Savarese conceded. “We have one more to go against Vancouver that is going to be very important for us. But, a great accomplishment today.”
With that accomplishment, the even-year-jinx is finally vanquished. Because with their second consecutive three-goal win, the Timbers are back in the postseason.