PORTLAND, Ore. – The Portland Timbers may not have needed a reminder of what the upper crust of Major League Soccer is capable of, but thanks to Atlanta United, they got one on Sunday night. Despite going chance for chance with MLS’s defending champions – perhaps even generating the superior ones (depending on the tint of your lenses) – the Timbers saw their two-game winning streak come to an end, matching the scoreline of last year’s MLS Cup final in their 2-0 loss at Providence Park.
“They took advantage of their moment,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, referring to the first-half goal which, eventually, served as Atlanta’s game winner. “We got a little frustrated, a little antsy, and we started rushing a little bit …
“Now we have to analyze (the game). We have to learn from it. We have to be ready. And now we play Seattle.”
Five days before a Cascadia Cup-defining visit from the Sounders, the Timbers will have to regroup. There were enough positives across the night’s 90 minutes to see silver linings in the performance; and, in the paucity of mistakes, despite their importance, Portland can take solace in needing only a few solutions.
“When they scored their second goal, it was more difficult,” midfielder Diego Chara said, of the 46th-minute goal from Josef Martínez that helped seal the match. “They sat back and tried to keep the ball, and it was most difficult for us. Now, we have to recover and start thinking of the next game.”
It was an outcome that demands that kind of perspective. It’s why many leagues around the world choose to complement their league competition with a knockout tournament, knowing that the variance we see over one match can lead to a wide array of results. Atlanta fully earned their three points on Sunday, but the Timbers created enough early chances, and asked enough of United goalkeeper Brad Guzan in the second half, for their performance, on another night, to yield a different result.
Those first-half chances, though – the missed opportunities to define the match early on – may be What We Remember most from a frustrating rematch of last year’s MLS Cup final.
What could have been
You could forgive a Timbers fan for getting their hopes up early on: when Sebastián Blanco fired a perfect ball through the six, at Guzan’s far post, then followed the chance moments later with his own try over the bar. Brian Fernandez had a first-half goal denied for offside, while two corners nearly morphed from penalty-box chaos into equalizing goals. Jeremy Ebobisse may have come closest to breaking through, leaping over Atlanta’s defense before heading a cross down at Guzan, but come halftime, the score was still 1-0.
“In the first half, we did a very good job,” Chara explained, “but we weren’t effective in the opportunities we created. And Atlanta, I think they did a good job. They were effective, and they were creative. I think that changed the game.”
It’s cliché to say goals change games, but most clichés are true. And in Sunday’s first half, there was a reminder of an equal and opposite reality: You can’t change a game unless you score.
Goals as the exceptions
Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark made a brilliant read mid-way through the first half, bursting off his line to deny Ezequiel Barco after the Atlanta attacker had been put behind the Portland defense. Aside from that, though, Clark had a relatively straight-forward night; at least, it was straight forward beyond the two goals.
What exactly happened on Atlanta’s opener? An initial try after a corner was denied before Julio Cascante missed on an attempted clearance. On one level, it was a breakdown of the collective, but on another, the ball could have been cleared without giving the play a second thought. Regardless, the play gave United control.
The second goal was a different kind of problem. Whatever the reasons Martínez was played behind the defense, given all the time he needed, and eliminated any chance for Clark to stop the shot, it was the type of bottom-line outcome that had to be avoided. Martínez is Atlanta’s primary threat. Neutralizing United started with containing their Venezuelan star. Any breakdown around him was a breakdown in Portland’s primary objective in the defensive half of the field.
That those scenes were the night’s aberrations, not the rules, didn’t matter on the scoreboard, something that served as a valuable reminder at the final whistle. When playing the Atlanta Uniteds of the world, the margins are going to be incredibly thin. Against the level United played at on Sunday, an imperfect performance probably ends with an imperfect result.
Seattle in view
That reminder about margins can turn into a positive. If so, we’ll know on Friday night. That’s when Seattle makes their first visit to Portland this season, a match that coincides with the end of this year’s Cascadia Cup competition. A win for the Sounders means the trophy will spend the year in the Emerald City. Any other result, and Cascadia’s top soccer honor comes back to Portland.
Particularly coming off a disappointing result, the Timbers will be expecting three points versus Seattle, but their ability to do so will also define the extent of Sunday’s downturn. Stop one game from becoming a slide, and the loss to Atlanta looks like a blip. Anything else, and Sunday’s performance becomes a bigger problem.