PORTLAND, Ore. – In the end, this is how it’s supposed to be over the second half of the Portland Timbers season. The price the team played through 12-straight road games to start the 2019 season came with an implicit guarantee: Over the season’s last months, your team can balance the scales, with the imperfections that kill you away becoming mere blemishes at home.
So far, so good. In the second game of Portland’s new, 10-match homestand, the Timbers followed Saturday’s 3-1 victory over Vancouver with another comfortable victory. Though a 10-man Chicago Fire reduced two-goal leads twice throughout the match's final 18 minutes, Portland rode early goals from Jorge Moreira and Brian Fernandez to climb back above the playoff line, their 3-2 win leaving the team seventh in the Western Conference.
"Excellent first 30 minutes," head coach Giovanni Savarese said, after the match. "We looked so good. We did very well. We moved the ball the way we wanted. We created chances we scored two goals. We were doing excellent."
"The unfortunate part is when the moment came for us to just kill the game, we allowed them to stay in the game ...," he conceded. "We shouldn't be finishing the match the way that we did."
Though Portland had to worry over the match’s final 17-plus minutes, the win was ultimately by the book. Jump on your guests early. Eliminate hope. Leave them scrounging to salvage a result. Undoubtedly, the Timbers will be disappointed to allow some of that scrounging to work, but in the end, the team met their main goal. They defended home ground, got the points they wanted, and continued climbing up the Western Conference standings.
"The first half, I think we did a very good job," Diego Chara said, echoing his head coach. "In the second half, I think we lost a lot of opportunities to score, and Chicago scored two goals. It was complicated at the end."
The win, ultimately, will be What We’ll Remember most, even if the 3-2 final, when looking back on it years from now, will hint at a more competitive game than we saw. Instead, with the Timbers leading for the night’s final 79 minutes, our greatest memories will be things that transcend the final score.
Over so soon?
Chicago’s heavily rotated lineup might have hinted this one was decided before its start, but anybody who thought that need only think back to the trouble a rotated Orlando City team gave the Timbers last month. Still, Portland seemed to learn from that disappointing, 1-1 draw, pressuring the Fire into a number of early corners and set pieces before, in the 11th minute, crafting an early breakthrough.
The key to this one was Sebastián Blanco’s recognition, seeing that Chicago left back Jonathan Bornstein had cheated toward Moreira’s wide run and left his team’s left channel open. Instead of fully switching the ball, Blanco played into that space, forced goalkeeper David Ousted into an aggressive read, and it created an abandoned goal for Moreira.
The second goal was more of the simple things coming good, with simple, unselfish play by Cristhian Paredes and Moreira setting up Fernandez’s 13th all-competition goal since arriving in May:
The layoff out wide, instead of a low-percentage shot. The easy feed into space, instead of looking for something more direct to goal. They’re plays that teams should make, but often, in sequences that need four, five things to go right, one person does something wrong, and a chance never develops. Instead, in Wednesday’s 21st minute, Portland did all the little things to double the score.
When, nine minutes later, Aleksandar Katai was shown a straight red card, the Timbers were left with one of their easiest nights of the season. One-third of the way through the match, Chicago was already in survival mode, and although their efforts eventually got them back within a goal, for Portland, it was still one of the most straight-forward nights of the season.
Mabiala: Waiting on word
It wasn’t all good news for the Timbers, though. In the 35th minute, the team’s best defender had to be subbed out, with Larrys Mabiala’s tender strides hinting at a problem with his left leg. Grabbing down toward the area near the back of his knee, the team’s linchpin in central defense gave way for Bill Tuiloma.
Between Tuiloma and Julio Cascante, the Timbers have two other starting-caliber center backs, but over his two-plus seasons in Portland, Mabiala has proven to be the back line’s least replaceable part. Just as the team’s midfield would not look the same without Chara, or the attack’s threat would change if it lost any of Blanco, Fernandez, or Diego Valeri, the Timbers are a different team when Mabiala’s in the lineup. It’s rare that a player’s both important and easily replaceable.
In the moments after Wednesday’s game, there was no clear word on Mabiala’s status. With only three days’ rest before the Timbers’ next game, a Cascante-Tuiloma pairing may be called on when Atlanta comes to Providence Park.
The year of Blanco walk-in gold
Earlier this season, Blanco wore the best suit in Timbers walk-in history. That’s a fact. Please, don’t argue with us on this one.
Somehow, on Wednesday night, the Argentine attacker managed to top himself:
There are two main angles to this one. First, while I’m sure we could comb the security tape from camera around Providence Park, that feels unfair to a fan who, between this drawing and the scorpion they previously provided for Fernandez, is becoming one of the most pleasant mysteries of the 2019 season. They may not be as grandiose or collaborative as one of the Timbers Army’s tifo, but in their own way, they’re providing a similar element. Somebody, through their art, is expressing how much they love Timbers soccer, right now.
The second angle is Blanco himself. We’ve always seen the 31 year old’s whimsy on the field, but this year, his third in Portland, it’s starting to come out more off the field, too. We did have the Chucky mask celebration last season, as well as a number of memorable walk-in outfits, but this year, Blanco’s personality is becoming dominant. Whether it be with the blonde-hair trend he accelerated, his contributions to walk-up fashion, of the celebrations with his family that have become a key part of Portland’s post-match rituals, Blanco is becoming an increasingly important part of Timbers culture.
Tonight, ready to give the people what they want, “Chucky” went all out. The art was there. The costume was present. He was ready to play his part. As a result, we were given something which, from all the things that happened Wednesday at Providence Park, we’re most likely to remember most.