The only thing missing was the intensity. There was certainly enough, though, given it was a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal, but in the MLS Cup Playoffs, it’s a whole different level. In Open Cup, it’s win or go home from a tournament. In the playoffs, it’s win or go home for the season.
Maintain that perspective, and you can still come up with a superlative: Wednesday’s game at Los Angeles FC was likely the greatest challenge the Portland Timbers will face before this year’s MLS postseason. And they left Banc of California victorious, 1-0.
The game was on short rest, with cross-continental travel in between. It was on the road, against the best team in Major League Soccer, in a game where both teams started their strongest lineup. This may have been Open Cup, but neither team was thinking MLS first.
There would be no excuses for the loser, which is why, for Portland and their fans, the win will feel so much sweeter. After a contentious 3-2 loss at home to LAFC on June 1, the Timbers were not only left defeated in their home opener but chastised by the guests and their coach. Now, LAFC’s been knocked out.
That’s What We’ll Remember most from this game. Yes, the Timbers are into the Open Cup semifinals, matching their best run in the tournament’s history, but had the win come against another team, it wouldn’t have felt as good. Portland went into Banc of California Stadium to send a message. They did so with their play, not their words.
Here’s what else we should remember from Wednesday night, with Portland now within two wins of a U.S. Open Cup:
The chances that could have been
There’s a danger of seeing the highlights from this match, witnessing how Portland scored their goal, and thinking the Timbers were lucky. No doubt, there was a lot of fortune went into Jordan Harvey deflecting a ball behind LAFC’s defense, Jeremy Ebobisse being there, and the Timbers getting a clear shot. It was magnificent on his finish by the Portland forward, but what led to it? That’s not something Portland could plan for.
But to hold up that score and say the Timbers got lucky would ignore the great save Pablo Sisniega needed to deny Larrys Mabiala off a first half corner kick. Actually, that happened twice. Mabiala could have had a brace by halftime. Marvin Loría also got a one-on-one that he pushed past the left post, and in the second half, both Sebastián Blanco and Brian Fernandez had clear chances to breakthrough. Ebobisse’s goal may have come out of nowhere, but in terms of fortune, LAFC was already riding their luck.
Credit Sisniega for keeping his team in the match, but this was no fluky result. LAFC has rarely been the lesser team in 2019, but on Wednesday, the best team won. And the Timbers are moving on.
Shutout at LAFC
As a testament to how good LAFC has been, consider their scoring record in league play: 50 goals in 19 games. The team is on pace to set league records for scoring, goal difference and points in a season, and having already accrued 43 points in 19 games, they’re seven points up on the rest of the circuit.
Yet the Timbers not only held LAFC scoreless, they limited Bob Bradley’s team to one shot on target. That’s not always the best measure of quality chances, but as a proxy for something more detailed, it matches the eye test. Steve Clark had some moments he was tested, and in at least two sharp crosses hit with pace across Portland’s six-yard box, LAFC had dangerous moments that didn’t turn into shots, but compared to the Timbers’ chances, the hosts didn’t generate much.
Still, LAFC may go down as the best attack in MLS history. But at their home, in a knockout match, the Timbers kept them off the board.
A marker, laid down
There’s been a subtext to the discussion around Portland since Fernandez came on board, one that’s cautiously hinted at the same question: How good can the Timbers be? The regular season record says one thing – though we all know why – while the names on the team sheet say another. Are the Timbers, come year’s end, going to be a title contender? Wisely, most are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Even after Wednesday’s game, they should, but the win adds a hell of a data point to the analysis. If anybody wondered about the Timbers’ ceiling, their latest win implies that anywhere, against any team in the league, Portland’s more capable than most of obtaining a result. Their ceiling, that result says, is championship level.
Now it’s a matter of making this level a rule, not an exception. No doubt Portland should be proud of this result, but it can’t be a one-off. Ever since the Fernandez signing, the Timbers have had the talent to make this level their norm, but that has to be shown over a series of results. Count in Sunday’s win at New York City FC, and you can say yes, Portland’s done this twice. Still, twice is not a norm.
Whatever uncertainty there was before Wednesday, though, there’s no reason for it now. Portland can move forward confident, discarding any doubt about what type of team they can become.
Shortly before the match, it was announced that Giovanni Savarese would not be with the team, with the head coach having flown to Italy to tend to his father’s health. It was the first match since his hiring that the Timbers played without Savarese, one where victory may have meant something special.
Twice over the last year-and-a-half, Savarese has been subject to, as it appeared on camera, post-match lectures on the sideline from Bradley. In June, Bradley took those comments public, spending a prolonged period of time with the media in Portland while playing (in his words) a “tough critic” of the day’s opponent.
Savarese wasn’t in Los Angeles for Portland’s rebuttal, but the game plan had his fingerprints all over it. It was the type of disciplined, opportunistic display he’s made a calling card in Portland’s biggest moments, one that still allowed his team to impose their approach as the game allowed. They pressed. They countered. They built both quick and slow. They were a team capable of playing in the moment, whatever it was. Eventually, a winning moment came.
We saw the approach in the number of chances the Timbers created, and the paucity they allowed. We saw it in the lineup choice, the result, as well as the fact that the team is moving on. They’re still alive. Bradley and LAFC are not.
Savarese would have wanted the players to play for themselves, but hopefully, they kept their coach close to their hearts. That one should have been for Gio.