PORTLAND, Ore. – If the rest of the season goes as planned, this will be the most dramatic victory of the season – a level of suspense and payoff that isn’t that uncommon for this group.
The playoff victory last season in Seattle. Then the same dramatics in the next round, in Kansas City. The core that the Portland Timbers refined two years ago has gotten used to seeing their backs pushed to the wall and then responding. Perhaps Saturday night’s stakes weren’t as high as last year’s postseason, but the drama was equally profound.
Finding themselves down to a flukey Benny Feilhaber goal after 65 minutes, the Timbers nearly saw a night of patient control go for naught, only to have late goals from Jeremy Ebobisse and, four minutes into added time, Brian Fernandez salvage victory. Over the span of half an hour, the Timbers went from a 1-0 loss that would have pulled Sporting Kansas City into a tie for eighth to a 2-1 victory, one that not only leaves the team above the Western Conference’s playoff line but allows them to turn the page on three weeks of uncertain results.
“It gives you the chance to believe that we’re on the right track,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, of the importance of Saturday’s victory, “that when we put the work that we put in today and the confidence to play, that we can achieve something good, even at the last second.
“These are the wins that give you the strength to keep on working and get closer to where we want to be. But now it’s important to understand that this happened today; now, we prepare for the next game that is coming. We need another strong effort to continue to do well.”
Saturday’s victory was not without its problems; most prominently, an inability to get the ball over Sporting’s goalline over the match’s first 82 minutes. The offense will have to become more potent. But in the response Portland showed after their guest’s shock goal, the team has what was lacking after last week’s victory over Real Salt Lake. Even in the silver linings of the preceding games, losses to Atlanta United FC and Seattle Sounders FC, there was nothing as resounding as the fortitude Portland showed to turn Saturday’s result.
That mentality, as well as the comeback it produced, will undoubtedly be What We’ll Remember most. But, like the Timbers themselves, let’s leave that late as we run down Saturday’s memories.
Depleted, and improvising
A three-man middle, with Andy Polo and Eryk Williamson in the XI? And a three-pronged attack of Jeremy Ebobisse and Dairon Asprilla flanking Diego Valeri? Whatever we were meant to hypothesize before the game, when the lineup came out, it would have been difficult to predict what we saw. Forced to improvise by 10 injuries and absences, Savarese and company came up with a new look.
“We felt that (playing) this way, with the group that we had, we could do very well,” Savarese explained. “Having Asprilla and Jebo a little bit higher, a little bit wider with Valeri in the middle and then playing with three in the middle (gave us) better support, and I thought the guys executed very well.”
The underlying style, though, didn’t change much. Portland was quicker to move the ball into certain areas, looking to take advantage of the matchups Ebobisse and Asprilla could create from their wide spaces, but the team largely looked the same it has over the last month. There was patience, often compromised. There was inventiveness, occasionally too soon. There was also, eventually, a breakthrough.
Ultimately, the goals the team scored leveraged their approach, finding room to create from wide as the defense was forced to stretch. Providence Park just had to use some patience of its own to get their payoff.
Feilhaber … what?
What was this?
Seriously. What was it? Cross? Shot? Shross? I ask because this almost decided the game.
Sixty-fifth minute. Practically out of nowhere. This goal gave a tough Kansas City defense a lead it could sit on. It seems worth asking if it was a cross or a shot.
“I was crossing it,” Feilhaber admitted afterward. “I’m sure a lot of people would claim the shot, but I tried to cross it, mishit it and I think I got hurt in the process, also.” Feilhaber left the game with an injury to his right leg before the final whistle.
Maybe it doesn’t matter if it was a cross or shot. It counts all the same on the scoreboard. But given the stakes of Saturday’s game, it seems almost morose that this goal could have been decisive.
Had it held up, the questions the Timbers would have faced with would have been almost existential. We would have been left doubting the team’s playoff future. Instead, it’s just a weird goal.
In the face of that deficit, the Timbers could have played the victim, especially after a first-half moment of video review deprived Portland of an early penalty kick. They could have chalked their loss up to a weird night and spent the next week wallowing in what ifs and could have beens.
Instead, the team responded, with two of the most influential playing in club history willing the team in front.
Consider Diego Chara’s run here, on the first goal. We’ve seen this before – one of his trademark defense-snapping charges from deep midfield – but the timing of this was the story. Down for almost 20 minutes; having failed to truly start breaking through. The Timbers needed something new. That something came from Diego Chara.
“I just saw that space,” Chara said, when asked to describe his contribution. “Marvin (Loría) played a good ball to me, and I just crossed. Jebo scored. It’s a great feeling, and now, we are very happy.”
From that moment on, there was a sense Portland had a winner in them. But that sense doesn’t always produce. Too often in soccer, we’re left asking what would have happened if a team had two, five, 10 more minutes. Too often, time runs out.
On Saturday, though, Diego Valeri made sure that feeling came good.
Ebobisse and Fernandez deserve credit here, too. As last night’s Thorns game reminded us, the finish may not be the most difficult part of a goal, but it’s the most important.
Beyond that importance, though, it’s worth remembering what Diego Chara delivered, as well as Portland’s other beloved Diego. They truly did the most important parts.