Brian Fernandez #2, Timbers @ Dynamo, 5.15.19
(USA Today Sports Images)

What We'll Remember | A night of debuts nearly produces a breakthrough in Houston

By the time the teams reached halftime, the Portland Timbers looked like they needed a standing eight count, with the Houston Dynamo threatening to pile on to their 40th-minute opener. Forty-five minutes later, the Timbers were leaving BBVA Compass Stadium on even footing, using the energy of their record signing’s debut to take a gratifying point on the road.

“We said that we needed to do a little bit better in the second half, and the game became a little bit open,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said of his team’s 1-1 draw. “Our guys fought through the entire second half … But the tie was a fair result.”

In time, Wednesday’s draw might, in the record books, feel like any other match, but the feeling of a decent start fading over the half’s last minutes hinted the Timbers were vulnerable. Then, over the last half hour, the team seemed as dangerous as they’ve been all season. Spending time at both ends of a performance’s spectrum, Portland’s trip to Houston never felt like a typical, 1-1 draw. At every moment, there was more potential than normal for this match to become something else.

That it didn’t meant the night’s main memories will lie in milestones, with two Timbers who are expected to have strong futures with the club making their MLS debuts. While recent news meant one of those names was more anticipated than the other, both debutants may have years left in their Portland futures.

Here’s What We’ll Remember from Portland’s draw in Houston.

Big name makes an immediate impact

If his first appearance was any indication, we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about Brian Fernandez. But before we do, it’s worth a moment to remember this pass from Sebastián Blanco: a rainmaker launched with one purpose – to give the new guy a chance – delivered with enough audacity to catch the Dynamo off guard.

Why did Blanco play such a hopeful, lofted ball? It doesn’t really matter. He did, and at the moment he launched his pass, the Dynamo had lost track of the Timbers’ biggest threat. Wide but still onside, Fernandez needed only one touch to set up his game-tying goal.

“I’m really happy,” Fernandez said, through a translator after the match. “It took a lot to get me [to Portland], and the least I can do is repay the people who made that happen and score goals like I did today. “

Even before he broke through, Fernandez had altered the match, providing a glimpse of how drastically he might change Portland’s threat. Constantly menacing the space behind Houston’s defensive line, the team’s newest Designated Player created space behind him, giving the likes of Blanco and Diego Valeri an amount of real estate they’ve rarely enjoyed this season. As a reward, Portland tried time and time again to get their new signing a second goal, with strong reads on a handful of through balls allowing the Dynamo defenders to maintain the tie score.

“He was a threat as soon as he jumped onto the field,” Savarese said. “He told me, ‘I’m going to score,’ and he did. It was great.”

Thirty-two minutes, if you add extra time, isn’t enough to draw conclusions on Fernandez’s impact, but if tonight’s early hints hold true, the Timbers are going to be a markedly different team with the 24-year-old Argentine in the lineup. In his movement, athleticism, and the way he attacks space, he offers something Portland’s rarely had before.

T2’s captain with a strong debut

Fernandez wasn’t the only Timber making his MLS debut, with midfielder Renzo Zambrano’s arguably longer-awaited then his more renown teammate’s. Almost two years after coming to Portland, the Venezuelan international was finally given his first league minutes, his only other first-team time coming in last year’s U.S. Open Cup. Replacing the suspended Diego Chara, the Timbers 2 captain made his case for more minutes at the top level.

Completing 44 passes at an 86.4 percent clip, Zambrano was second to only Blanco in the number of times he found teammates. The three tackles he collected matched his single interception as team highs, while the six long passes he completed on six attempts marked the most accurate and most prolific numbers among field players.

In style, it was the type of performance T2 fans have become accustomed to from one of Cameron Knowles’ best players – encouraging, since he was being asked to replicate that impact at a higher level. While that didn’t quite happen on Wednesday, Zambrano’s performance hinted he could, with more opportunities, duplicate his USL results. Over 90 minutes, Zambrano showed he may have an MLS future.

A valuable point on the road

ROOT SPORTS displayed the record prior to kickoff. Portland was 0-4-4 all time in Houston prior to tonight’s kickoff. Although Wednesday ended without the Timbers breaking into that win column, history shows a point in southeast Texas can’t be taken for granted. For only the second time in seven games this season, the Dynamo were kept from full points at home.

The result leaves Portland at exactly a point-per-game rate, taking 11 in as many games into Philadelphia 10 days from now. While the east leaders could prove among the most difficult opponents Portland’s faced this season, recent results at Toronto and Houston give us a reminder: no match is lost before it starts. For the first time in team history, Portland claimed victory at BMO Field last month, and amid a few close calls over Wednesday’s final minutes, they nearly made history in Houston.

No matter what, though, the Timbers will open a remodeled Providence Park on June 1 having survived their road run, in a competitive sense. Though they’ll want something from the trip’s 12th of 12, 11 points already assures the team will be in a manageable place when they debut their home’s new look.

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