What We'll Remember | Timbers dominance undermined by the stat that matters most

PORTLAND, Ore. – When Orlando City SC captain Sacha Klejstan lined up a 90th-minute corner kick in the south end of Providence Park, he did so for only the second time on Thursday night, the Portland Timbers having already taken eight of their own. That discrepancy was on top of the 25-2 edge in shots the hosts took into added time, with a 26th attempt coming before the final whistle. Orlando would get one more corner.

The night’s most important stat, though, was far more balanced. Thanks to a defensive mistake from the hosts near the end of the first half, Orlando carried a 1-0 lead into the match’s 81st minute, and while Jeremy Ebobisse’s sixth MLS goal of the season eventually allowed the Timbers to claim a result, the mood within the team after the 1-1 draw reflected two points lost, not one point salvaged.

“When we came into this game, the only goal was to get three points …,” defender Larrys Mabiala explained. “I think we started well … On a little, weird situation, they found a way to score a goal against us.

“Yeah, it’s good to at least take this point, but the feeling is that we lost two points, tonight.”

These were the games that are supposed to help the team make up ground. Twelve games on the road to start the season; the deficit in points the team knew they’d have to make up. They’re there, now, but a home-heavy schedule in the season’s second half would give Portland a chance to catch up, the thinking went. All the Timbers had to do to was cash in on the second-half schedule.

While little of that thought changes because of two nights’ results, the Timbers still find themselves four points out of a playoff spot – the exact number of points they’ve dropped against Orlando and Colorado.

“It’s definitely disappointing,” Ebobisse admitted. “You don’t want to drop any points at home. We saw this as an opportunity to pick up three points, get back in the good form that we’ve been in since we came back in home …

“We kept pushing for that first goal, and after that, we kept pushing for the second, but it didn’t come tonight. But there’ll be better games, if we keep playing like that.”

The big picture won’t be What We’ll Remember from Thursday’s match. If Portland’s made to pay later this year for this week’s results, it will be because they stumbled again, farther down the road.

Instead, our memories will linger on the match itself, and the dichotomy it depicted. How can one team be so dominant, in one respect, but drawn to level in another?

The first-half rebuke

Most of us have watched enough soccer to answer that question. The Timbers may have dominated in terms of shots, possession (63.3 to 36.7), duels won (54 to 43), tackles (21 to 5) and aerial battles won (15 to 9), but the only number that matters said the teams were equals.

“We imposed ourselves in their half,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “We created lot of situations, a lot of shots, a lot of opportunities … Unfortunately, we allowed them to find that goal in the first half. Our mistake. I think that was the only moment that they looked dangerous.”

That moment came in the 44th minute, but it was defined by two smaller moments, both of which made you ask, “How?” The first came when Orlando winger Robinho poked the ball away from Zarek Valentin as the Timbers fullback bent down, along the east sideline, to pick it up for a throw-in. The ball had yet to go out. Robinho took possession and turned toward goal.

The second moment came on the resulting clearance, one that was demanded of Jorge Moreira after Robinho’s cross. From the edge of the six-yard box, the Timbers right back cleared it toward the penalty spot. Unfortunately, Santiago Patiño was there, with the Orlando striker leaving Steve Clark little chance to stop his first-time shot.

“It happens,” Savarese said. “It’s soccer. Soccer is like life, sometimes. We made a mistake, and they penalized. They were able to score that goal.”

To describe the goal as a shock wouldn’t capture the moment. Had the score come earlier in the game, there might have still been hope that Orlando was capable of more, with the goal being a hint of what could come. Had the score come later, it would have been after the Timbers exerted more and more pressure, with the visitors making them pay for their three-point pursuit.

But the goal came as the Timbers were comfortable. They’d controlled play, having limited Orlando to one shot to that point. Portland had yet to score, but there were a number of good half-chances, enough to give the impression a second 45 minutes would produce a Timbers breakthrough.

Instead, the capacity crowd at Providence Park was given a reminder of soccer’s whimsy. One team can dictate the match. They can control the ball and almost every chance generated with it. They could be facing a team that was having to balance cross-country travel around a mid-week, short-rest game. By every measure except one, they can be the better side, and absolutely none of that will matter in the slightest.

All that will matter is which team made the most of their moments. On Thursday, each team did so exactly once.

Another big Ebobisse goal

It was just over a week ago that Ebobisse was center stage, scoring late at Los Angeles FC to vault Portland into the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. Tonight’s late goal didn’t lead to victory, but it still carried some drama, with the 22 year old’s equalizer alleviating most fears of a worst-case scenario.

“I knew that, as soon I was going to get in the game, my job was to be inside the box and try to clean up any goals from there,” he said. “Once I saw the cross come in from the right side, I set myself up to get the header. But then Brian (Fernandez) redirected it, and it was just about putting my body in position to get some kind of redirection on goal.”

Ebobisse is now up to six goals on the season, double the career total he carried into 2019. Though he has had to shift from striker to wing after the acquisition of Fernandez, his goal rate has persisted. Scoring once every 205.2 minutes in 2019, Ebobisse has improved on the career rate he carried into the season (255.3).

“Jebo” was in no mood to reflect on personal accomplishments postgame, but on a night where some could use a silver lining, it’s worth considering where he’s at, in this moment. Still only 42 games into his MLS career, Ebobisse is establishing himself as a reliable source of goals, no small accomplishment in a team that still has Diego Valeri, Sebastián Blanco and Fernandez. His hold up play and defensive work are also positives, while his positional versatility is turning into, from the point of view of late 2018, an unexpected virtue.

And, he’s coming up with clutch goals. At least this month, he is. And while Thursday might not be the ideal time to reflect on his progress, progress is increasingly part of Ebobisse’s profile.

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