With Knockout Round in view, Timbers close 2018's regular season with close loss at Vancouver

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – When the Portland Timbers come to Vancouver, the streets around BC Place are sprinkled with green and gold. The colors adorn the scarves of couples walking northwest down Robson Street, a main thoroughfare of the city’s West End, and the jackets of groups who’ve claimed space in the road’s adjacent cafes and bars. Be it once a year or more, the ritual trip is a highlight for the Timbers Army’s traveling corps, with a puddled dampness of this October’s afternoon visit doing little to diminish fans’ getaway feel.

This one never felt like a normal trip, perhaps because everything seemed so settled. If results broke with fortune, the Timbers could climb from fifth to second place on MLS Decision Day presented by AT&T, the last day of the 2018 regular season, but there were no guarantees, and to pursue the season’s final game against Whitecaps FC as if there were would undermine the squad mid-week in the upcoming Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs. The most important game of the 2018 season was still three days away. The Timbers coaching staff needed to plan for it.

“The most important part about today,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said in the moments after Sunday’s match, “is that we have a lot of guys rested and focusing on what is coming next week.”

On one level, that made the day’s 2-1 loss easier to take. Just as the Timbers would have done after a win, the team had to quickly shift focus. To the extent they would normally dwell on this type of loss – one in which first-half mistakes compromised the broader performance – Portland couldn’t in the wake of Alphonso Davies’ two goals. Even Andrés Flores’ first-ever tally at the MLS level took a back seat to the anticipation of the five-four.

“This group has been working very hard throughout the entire season to have the opportunity to play today,” Savarese explained, “and [the result] could have went either way …

“I think we respected some of the players a little bit too much in the first half,” Savarese said, a clear allusion to Alphonso Davies’ performance, “and we put ourselves in a difficult situation … but we came back and were down one goal, and we gave it all.”

That “five-four” is the matchup Portland is left with after their loss, one that complemented FC Dallas’s defeat at the Colorado Rapids to cast the teams into the same pod of the Western Conference’s Knockout Round. At various points on Sunday, the Timbers seemed destined to travel to Los Angeles FC, or perhaps make the short trek to face Seattle Sounders FC. Instead, the team will travel to the Lone Star State on Wednesday (6:30pm PT, ROOT SPORTS), slated to play a team that struggled through the last two months of its regular season.

That’s the silver lining to Sunday’s results. Fans would be correct to note the Timbers could have earned a home game mid-week if they defeated Vancouver by two or more goals. Instead of traveling over two time zones to face Dallas, they could be at home, in front of the Timbers Army, enjoying all the advantages of played at Providence Park. But in the process, the team would have given away another advantage, one it always had under its control: The ability to play mid-week with a fresh squad.

Fully rotating the team, Savarese risked a game on the road for the reward of a fresher squad. He risked the unknown to bank on the known.

It’s also unclear whether sacrificing his squad’s freshness would have worked. To be at BC Place on Sunday was to witness a day that will be forever remembered by the Whitecaps’ faithful, who, for one day, dulled the disappointment of a postseason missed with a farewell to an emerging homegrown hero.

Perhaps it would have been too much to call 17-year-old Bayern Munich-bound Davies heroic before Sunday’s game, but with two goals in the first half, he and his teammates not only adorned their capes for a short window but also made something, from the match’s initial moments, clear: They were willing to raise their games to another level to give an honored son his farewell.

“You knew from the beginning that they were going to step it up in the way they were going to play because it was an important game, and a day for the fans to enjoy a player that has done so well for them …,” Savarese conceded. “It is a great story for all of us in MLS.

“Of course, it was a very energized, the entire stadium. But at the same token, we, as a team respected him a little too much.”

“As a 15-year-old kid making his debut, from start to finish the fans have always supported me,” Davies said, after a day that cast him at the center of Vancouver soccer’s focus. “When I got the news that I was signing for Bayern Munich, I just wanted to make things special … coming into this game, knowing it was my last game for Vancouver, I just wanted to leave with a positive feeling.”

Come match’s end, Andy Polo had come on. As had Sebastián Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse. When the day’s madness began to turn in Portland’s favor, Savarese put his team in pursuit. Had the coaching staff known the day would break as such, that pursuit would have surely started sooner. Instead, mainstays like Diego Chara, Larrys Mabiala, Liam Ridgewell and Diego Valeri never saw the field.

The Timbers couldn’t play Game 34 as if they’d been handed an all-or-nothing scenario. No matter how matches in Colorado, Kansas and Seattle would unfold, Sunday was never an all-or-nothing proposition. The most important game of Portland’s season was still three days away, and while the green and gold in the Timbers’ fold gave the day a familiar feel, Sunday was never going to be a typical day in Vancouver.

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