PORTLAND, Ore. – What looked like a worst-case scenario as it unfolded on the field may have, in hindsight, been what the Portland Timbers needed. At least, after the visiting Seattle Sounders FC struck first in the first leg of the teams’ Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals against their archrivals, the Timbers played some of their best soccer of 2018, eventually handing their guests only their third loss in 17 games with Sunday’s 2-1 result.
“We started sluggish, in some ways,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said, after the match. “The first few minutes they found the goal on a play in which Sounders forward Raúl) Ruidíaz took advantage of the space, and I think that was a wakeup call. From that point on, I thought that we took the entire first half.”
That Ruidíaz goal, scored from close range in the 10th minute, came five minutes after a tense video review, one in which the capacity crowd at Providence Park was forced to consider a potential early penalty kick chance. The two moments highlighted an opening act that saw the Sounders in firm control.
“We were ready to start the game, but the balls they were playing down the (Timbers’) right side were sort of catching us unaware,” central defender Liam Ridgewell explained. “It’s something we needed to figure out.
“When they scored the goal, after that, I didn’t think they had much else to do.”
Ruidíaz’s goal was Seattle’s fourth shot of the game. They’d only have five more of the match’s final 90 minutes, once stoppage time was counted. Over the same period, Portland accumulated 10 of their 11 shots and, most importantly, two first half goals.
“From [the Ruidíaz goal] on, I thought that we took the entire first half,” Savarese said. “We were able to come back in, to get the two goals to be able to be ahead, and we had some other chances. Then, in the second half, it was an up-and-down game.”
By then, Seattle had two more blows. On the first-half movement that nearly became a Seattle penalty kick, midfielder Cristian Roldan was injured, and although he tried to persist for 17 more minutes, Roldan eventually had to be taken off. Defender Chad Marshall, too, was stretchered off the field in the first half with what looked like a serious injury.
That Seattle was able to recover from not only the goals but the injuries, make it to halftime and, in the second half, thwart the Timbers’ momentum as a credit to the Sounders. But the game’s greater credit is due Portland, who not only defeated the hottest team in Major League Soccer but continued the success they’d had against their rivals in the regular season.
“We knew Seattle was a tough team,” Savarese said. “They’d done very well. The rivalry always brings even more intensity to these matches … and at the end, a 2-1 win was important for us.”
It also represents a dynamic that was hard to foresee, before the match. First games of two-leg matchups are often muted affairs, with both teams having incentive to play conservatively. The home team gets harshly punished for conceding an away goal, while the visiting side often just wants to survive on the road.
Ruidíaz’s goal immediately changed that, giving Seattle an important edge as they head back north: the away goals tiebreaker. But it also gave Portland incentive to not only open up and pursue their first half goals but keep pressing for more. The 2-1 victory was a good one, but failing to add another score, Portland is in a position where a 1-0 win for Seattle on Thursday will send the Sounders to a third-straight Western Conference final.
“We won. That’s the important thing,” Savarese said, when asked about the score. “We’ll think about everything else later.”
For the fourth time, this year, Portland can be said to have outplayed their rivals. That hasn’t always resulted in a win, but on Sunday, it produced a halftime lead. If that pattern continues on Thursday at CenturyLink Field (7:30pm PT), the Timbers will find themselves in the club’s third Western Conference final.
“We need to enjoy the moment, and that we set ourselves up for a good game over there,” Jeremy Ebobisse, scorer of the Timbers’ first goal, said. “But at the same time, halfway there, a lot of work to do. Their atmosphere is very good, too, and tough to play in, and we can’t take it lightly.
“It’s nowhere near finished. Everyone knows that.”