PORTLAND, Ore. – The reminder doesn’t make the game any less frustrating, nor the implications of Sunday’s result any less meaningful. But this happens, games like this. Even the best teams in the world find themselves trying to pullback a freak goal, left reminded of one of the most brutal, debilitating realities of the sport: When you’re only tasked with preventing goals, soccer becomes a much, much easier sport.
Such was the case after a first-half own goal left the Portland Timbers chasing visiting D.C. United, but whereas the team was able to overcome similar circumstances last week against Sporting Kansas City, on Sunday, the guests were able to hold out. With their 1-0 loss at Providence Park, Portland still sits sixth the Western Conference, but they miss out on a chance to end the weekend as high as third.
"We've been on the other side, as well, when you need to work hard to get a result and capitalize on the goal that you score," head coach Giovanni Savarese explained. "D.C. did that today ...
"Sometimes, when you play a very good game, you don't get anything from it. Maybe [D.C. United] showed a little more maturity. They have a full roster of players that, in moments, understand how to manipulate some things, and they did very well. Credit to them."
With the New York Red Bulls in Goose Hollow on Wednesday (7:30pm PT, TICKETS, FOX 12 PLUS), the Timbers won’t have time to wallow in their misfortune. Instead, the team’s handed the first of four-straight quick turnarounds, forcing them to file away What We’ll Remember from a frustrating afternoon at Providence Park.
One-way, most of the day
Before Bill Tuiloma’s 25th-minute slide into the six-yard box ended in D.C.’s only goal, the game was playing out as Portland would want. They’d kept 55.7 percent of the match’s possession, had outshot D.C. United 6-3 and had seen a Diego Valeri header from near the penalty spot spank Bill Hamid’s right post. It felt like a matter of time until the Timbers broke through.
Instead, a sliding challenge from Diego Chara sends the ball into space behind the line, Tuiloma’s racing back to defend the unexpected cross, and seconds later, it’s 1-0 for United. Even before those things happened, you could look at the small passes D.C. was connecting in midfield as the play’s instigator, but the result remains the same. Whereas at one point, the game felt by the book, all of a sudden, Portland was chasing.
Chasing against D.C. is a precarious thing. Coming into the weekend, Ben Olsen’s team had the fifth-lowest goals against average in the league, and the Timbers found out why. For all the pressure Portland exerted throughout the match, what was the most difficult stop Hamid had to make all afternoon?
"Anytime you lose at home, you can't help but feel disappointed, regardless of how the game went ...," attacker Jeremy Ebobisse said. "They got a lucky bounce into our goal, and then they managed the game well. Credit to them for that. We're going to have to figure out how to beat these kinds of teams that are going to come in and bunker down."
The final edge in shots was 23-6. Portland finished the game with 67.3 percent of the day's possession. They attempted 611 passes at an 85.8 percent clip. And, they lost.
"I'm very proud of the players, because I think they played an excellent match," Savarese said. "Just the final piece needed to be a little bit better."
More fun in the six-yard box
One month ago, it was a 14th-minute corner against Atlanta United FC. Chaos in the six-yard box went uncleared. Leandro González Pirez cleaned it up for a goal. The Timbers fell behind, ended up losing at home.
The next week, it was a similar story. A loose ball in the six, this time against Seattle; this time in the 22nd minute. Cristian Roldan cleans it up, puts the Sounders in front. The Timbers go on to lose at home.
Sunday afternoon’s goal against D.C. came from a very different play, but the outcome was similar to what we saw against Atlanta and Seattle, as well as the outcomes we saw early in the season. For whatever reason, players, coaches and fans were left wondering how, in those moments when the emergency defending was tested, Portland gave away another goal. Perhaps the circumstances change each time, but they’re yielding similar results.
The last five even more important
The Timbers still have home games against Minnesota United FC and the San Jose Earthquakes – two teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings. With a game they’ll have in hand on the rest of the Western Conference's playoff picture, they’ll have time to make up the three-, four- or six-point gap that will separate them from second place. They’ll know the definite number after Sunday’s games are done. Regardless, Portland is still in a decent place in terms of their playoff future, with five games over the next three weeks leaving most outcomes in their control.
"We control our own destiny," Ebobisse said. "If we win out, we'll be in a great spot. So, I'm not worried at all."
The biggest change after Sunday’s loss is the importance of those last five games. If feels like, so many times this season, Portland endured a loss that severely changed their outlook, but in reality, the team’s not that bad off for all the times they’ve stumbled. At some point, though, these stumbles will become falls, ones which will limit how far they can move forward. Had this loss come against Minnesota or San Jose, it may have severely hindered their chance to play a postseason game at home.
But, it didn’t. It didn’t come against a conference rival. It didn’t end their chance to finish second or third. For that reason, the team can focus on their underlying form. But if that form doesn’t lead to better results soon, the chances the conference keeps gifting the Timbers could end up wasted. And that waste could condemn the team to a postseason on the road.