PORTLAND, Ore. – “Art is everywhere” is a high-minded way of saying art is anywhere you choose to see it. But if there was art to be singled out from the Portland Timbers’ 3-0 victory on Sunday over Real Salt Lake, the most likely moment was in the 68th minute: the moment when Diego Chara’s culminated the contributions of four players whose talents mean so much to the team’s current form.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason Sunday’s second goal was chosen for this week’s The Complete Look:
Chara was that moment’s headliner, scoring a goal that curbed RSL’s momentum and sealed the Timbers’ return to the postseason. From a player that’s proved 2018’s most valuable to the team, it was apropos, particularly given the assist was delivered by somebody (Sebastián Blanco) whose importance to Portland’s attack continues to grow.
Still, to focus only on Chara and Blanco would overlook the play of the person who sprung the attack, Jeremy Ebobisse, as well as Larrys Mabiala, the first Timber to play the ball forward. And if you are inclined to be metaphorical, you could see Sunday’s crucial goal as emblematic of the trajectory the Timbers have charted.
So, let’s get metaphorical, but let’s start where the play began … and let’s see how far we can stretch Sunday’s metaphor.
Mabiala’s Sunday will be remembered for his contribution in the 15th minute, when his collected finish of a Diego Valeri restart gave the Timbers a reward for their persuasive start. But as Portland’s guests came into the match, the skills Mabiala are better known helped protect the Timbers’ one-goal cushion. Be it in the 18th minute, the 23rd or 59th, Mabiala persistently thwarted an RSL team which, crossing from their right, starting carving avenues toward an equalizer.
The six clearances with which he finished the match were twice as many as any other player on the field.
Sunday’s second goal exhibited another part of Mabiala’s game, one that often goes overlooked. It was evident in the first half, too, at the half-hour mark, when Mabiala was able to jump into midfield to make sure play didn’t escape RSL’s end of the field. Particularly when he is playing next to Liam Ridgewell, Mabiala can afford to take those chances in front of the line - risks that can lead to Sunday’s rewards. Able to play that second-half, loose ball forward, Mabiala sparked what might have been the day’s most important goal.
Mabiala has been the Timbers’ primary set-piece target all season, the main reason he’s collected five goals. He’s also been the team’s most consistent presence along the back, logging 2,744 minutes to lead all Portland defenders. In a season that’s made him a fringe Defender of the Year candidate, though, he’s also formed a lockdown pairing with Ridgewell, with the duo proving relatively impenetrable after a rough start to the season:
|Combination||Minutes Played||Goals Allowed||Goals Allowed / 90 Minutes|
Fitness undermined Mabiala at the end of last season, adding his name to a list of absences that compromised Portland’s 2017 postseason. This year, Mabiala’s a key part of the team’s late-season push, forming half of a partnership the Timbers can be confident in come Game 35.
Since his ascension to the starting XI, Ebobisse has been drawing our attention to what he does beyond the scoresheet, be it in his movement off the ball, his work in the air, or how he contributes in the defensive phase. We’ve dwelt on it so much, there’s no need to strike the same notes, even if at least one aspect of his game deserves some more notice.
On Chara’s second-half goal, Ebobisse makes arguably the most important contribution, dropping back from his place along the defense to claim Mabiala’s pass before springing Blanco into space, generating the attack’s momentum. But that wasn’t the first time Ebobisse’s play with his back to goal helped generate a chance. In the 17th, 19th and 62nd minutes, the second-year forward’s distribution was also on display, while hold-up play in the 12th, 25th and 33rd minutes also helped Portland’s early push.
The chalkboard, below, shows very little of those contributions. In fact, the graphic is more telling for what is doesn't show than what it does. Charting Ebobisse's passes Sunday versus Real Salt Lake, the chalkboard only has one giveaway in those crucial areas around the center circle and deeper - where Portland's forward needs to offer a release valve for the players deeper on the field. Slightly above the circle, there are a few more incomplete passes, but they're almost all positive balls. When Ebobisse was giving the ball away, it was while trying to move his team forward.
Ebobisse was given an assist on the Chara goal, leaving him with three goals and five assists through his first 22 Major League Soccer appearances. In terms of minutes (only 756, career), those numbers are more impressive, but when you look at his Timbers 2 (five goals in 34 games) and NCAA (nine in 37) production, you see Ebobisse has always challenged the notion that forwards should only be judged by their goals.
From Fanendo Adi’s early form, to the use of Dairon Asprilla, to the broader debate about what head coach Giovanni Savarese should do at forward, the importance of goal scoring from forwards has been an implicit theme around the Timbers all season. In how he contributed beyond the goal column, Ebobisse is carving out his own place in those debates. If that means the Timbers’ new starter becomes seen as more of an all-around talent, his team may be better for it.
The late-season accolades are pouring in, and deservedly so. At the end a season that has seen him emerge as a focal point in the Timbers’ attack, Blanco has gained Team of the Week recognition, as well as the Supporters’ Player of the Year award. Compared to those honors, a place in this drawn out metaphor is insignificant, but it’s a place that, through our forced perspective, encapsulates the Argentine’s 2018.
Valeri remains a foundational piece for the Timbers, and on Sunday, he led the team in passes (49), passing percentage (87.8), key passes (five) and touches (73). But when Valeri is pulled deep into midfield, as he was on this play, the team still needs players capable of punishing their opponents. Ebobisse did that, making defender Marcelo Silva pay for aggression he’d got away with earlier in the half, as did Blanco, whose 11 assists have established him as a second Timber capable of delivering a punishing final ball.
This time, that ball was to Chara. Blanco has the primary assist on Chara’s other 2018 goal, too, setting him up in front of an empty net against Toronto FC. Ebobisse was the beneficiary two weeks ago, at Real Salt Lake, just as he benefited from Blanco’s work on Sept. 8 against Colorado. Each contribution is part of an eight-game stretch that’s seen Blanco collect four goals and six assists as he’s fueled Portland’s playoff surge.
In tandem with Valeri, he’s driving an attack that’s taking on a much different character than last year’s, one less driven by one man’s MVP surge than two creators’ complementary contributions. Whether that formula proves more formidable come this year’s postseason will get its first test just over a week from now.
There may be something to the number two, as it concerns Chara’s 2018. Then again, we may be reading too much into the symbolism. He did, after all, score his second goal of the season on Sunday. He missed two games recovering from a foot injury at the beginning of the season, has seen yellow cards take him out of two more, and (as we’ve discussed, before) played two subtly different roles, this year, in midfield.
But in a season in which his status as the most important Timber has played out more prominently that other campaigns, it feels appropriate that one of the most important goals of the season – perhaps not playoff-clinching, but seemingly playoff-sealing – was delivered by the long-time linchpin. Even within the context of Sunday’s game, as Real Salt Lake seem poised to break through, it felt right that Chara not only scored a pressure-relieving goal but did so in such a distinct manner: reading play so far ahead of time; surging past a field’s worth of defenders; easing around a legendary goalkeeper, eschewing dramatics in favor or erudition.
Timbers fans have always been the greatest proponent of their team’s first Designated Player, but amid the reputations of players like Valeri, Adi and Darlington Nagbe, it was easy for others to overlook the Colombian star. Even players like Will Johnson, Donovan Ricketts and, now, Blanco have come in and rightly earned a national eye, but amid it all, the Timbers have had one constant.
This year, Chara has gotten more attention outside of Portland than he’d garnered before, but with the Timbers’ icon now 32, such praise feels overdue. Karmatically, it’s only right that one of the more important goals of 2018 was scored by somebody who had given so much before.