If last week brought life around the Portland Timbers back to normal, this weekend’s result took that feeling to a whole new realm. Winning three in a row feels a special no matter the context, but after five straight losses? It makes you reconsider your world.
All the gloom and doom those around the Timbers had to consider three weeks ago? Of course, that was the reality of a team that was 0-5-1, at the time. We had to live in that space. But with the virtue of hindsight, everything now seems so reactionary, so rash – as if a three-game winning streak was so impossible.
Yet that’s where today’s victory leaves us. Having defeated Real Salt Lake 2-1 at Sandy, Utah’s Rio Tinto Stadium, the Timbers climb to eighth in the Western Conference, even on points with seventh-place RSL. After failing to hold teams under two goals for the season’s first six weeks, Portland’s conceded exactly once in each of their last three games, with the 1.44 goals they’re scoring per game looking positively encouraging, considering they’ve yet to play a second at home.
“They really put their heart into the match,” Savarese said of his team, after the match. “Even though sometimes we could have been a little bit better with the ball, I thought that the guys worked very hard to make sure we made it very difficult for RSL.
“It’s an important win for us in a difficult place. I’m very content with the performance of the guys.”
Three more games on the road before Providence Park reopens will give Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the Houston Dynamo and Philadelphia Union a chance to curtail this success. Still, one of the takeaways from today’s victory was how well the Timbers reacted to their new equilibrium. There was no let-up in focus; no let-up in the mentality Savarese espouses. The Timbers have reacted well to their season’s first successes, and if defeats do come in the coming weeks, the cause is unlikely to be a lack of focus.
That ease with themselves is one thing we may remember from Saturday’s performance. The rest of the memories? They start in the team’s goal.
Steve Clark’s clairvoyance
The first half saw Zarek Valentin commit a handball which, while seemingly the right call, defenders can do little to avoid. At times, you see players put their hands behind their back, guarding against the misfortune he saw. But when you are still closing ground to try to defend a cross, it’s too soon to worry about changing your running form. Jefferson Savarino’s cross caught Valentin in the prefect spot.
Thanks to Steve Clark, though, most of those details are irrelevant. Leaping at the strike of the ensuing penalty try, the Timbers’ goalkeeper erased Albert Rusnák’s attempt, even though the Slovakian's ball was well-placed and well-struck. Headed for Clark’s lower-left corner, the RSL midfielder’s try never had a chance. Well before it reached the line, Clark had the spot covered.
Clark’s name was the only surprise one in Savarese’s XI, a group that was unchanged from the one that claimed three points in Toronto a week ago. Though many surely had concerns about Jeff Attinella not returning to the starting lineup, Clark quelled them with his stop, as well as the five saves he made beyond Rusnák’s shot. To the extent there’s now a competition in goal for Portland, it’s because Clark has seized his moment.
Rebounds made good by Blanco, Valeri
Portland entered Saturday’s match with only one player who’d scored multiple goals this season. Now, add Sebastián Blanco and Diego Valeri to that list, with the team’s two biggest stars scoring in somewhat similar ways.
First time off of rebounds, the former Lanus teammates made RSL pay for granting second chances, with Valeri’s shot about as well as you could have struck this ball:
Those scores are part of an attack which, in addition to waking up since being silenced in San Jose, is spreading the goals around. Since kickoff in Columbus two weeks ago, the Timbers have gotten goals from Larrys Mabiala, Jeremy Ebobisse (twice), Jorge Moreira, Bill Tuiloma, Blanco and Valeri. Whereas so much of last season’s attacking success depended on the team’s two Argentine stars, this year, others are already getting on the scoreboard.
The reality of three in a row
Ten points in nine games. Nobody thought the Timbers would be here, three weeks ago. Before the season started, some would have been satisfied with that total on June 1. The season’s opening, 12-game road stretch was always going to be hard.
Thanks to the winning streak, though, those around the team can afford to play “what if.” What if the Timbers win one of these last three road games? That would guarantee Providence Park reopens to a team that’s averaging more than a point per game. And what if this momentum carries them beyond that mark? We’ve spent so much time considering worst-case scenarios, the best-case ones have been overlooked.
When you win three in a row, you get to think about the positives. Undoubtedly, one game at a time will be preached. Valeri did so post-game, in Utah. The rest of us, though, can take this three-game run an ask “what if.” What if the Timbers can keep this up?