SANDY, Utah – In a long and challenging season that saw the Portland Timbers open in a snowstorm in Commerce City, Colo., it made for a strange bookend to have their 2019 campaign end with snowfall in Sandy, Utah.
Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake in Round One of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs was, as Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese put it after the match, “a game of two halves.” Portland did not register a shot in the first half and fell behind 1-0 in the 28th minute only to blaze back early in the second half to tie it in the 48th minute.
“I think the first half we didn’t show up,” Savarese said after the match. “Real Salt Lake completely dominated and we were lucky to be 1-0 down. Then in the second half it was all us. Real Salt Lake didn’t do anything. We completed dominated the second half and created enough chances to maybe put this game away and maybe even go into the overtime 1-1 would have been a little bit more fair.
“This game is not fair. Real Salt Lake was able to capitalize and at the end they had one chance and they took advantage.”
That one chance being a desperate ball that threaded itself past outstretched Portland defenders to find Jefferson Savarino who scored late to give Real Salt Lake the win.
While an offseason awaits for Portland with time for reflection and analysis, here’s What We’ll Remember from the snowy evening in Sandy.
Steve Clark Kept Doing Steve Clark Things
The Timbers being down only 1-0 at halftime flattered the visitors. With Portland trying to play a high line early, Real Salt Lake found space on the wings and were able to send balls over the top to their attackers. With Portland’s offense floundering, the half became a showdown between RSL forwards versus Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark.
Clark, who had one of the best seasons of his MLS career in 2019, first denied Damir Kreilach in the 10th minute on a tricky, sharp-angled shot. Four minutes later, Clark all but stood on his head when he first came off his line to stop a shot (this time against Corey Baird), race after the loose ball (again against Baird) to clear it upfield, and then sprint back to tip over the bar an attempt from distance that tried to catch him out of position.
Though Kreilach did find the back of the net in the 28th minute on header that left little for Clark to do, RSL could have been and really should have been up more goals were it not for the efforts of the Portland netminder.
Even RSL veteran midfielder Kyle Beckerman, no stranger to big MLS performances over his long career, had to concede admiration.
“I thought we played really well in the first half," he said. "Credit to Steve Clark. He played pretty good and had some really nice saves."
Asprilla. Again in October
“When you are given the opportunity, in any month of the year, you need to take advantage of it.”
Dairon Asprilla said that two weeks ago when he scored against San Jose to help the team clinch a spot in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs with a resounding 3-1 win at Providence Park.
On Saturday against Real Salt Lake, Asprilla again got an opportunity and again scored a key goal to pull the team level, albeit temporarily. While the driving rain turning into wet snow, Asprilla once again made an October mark.
With that goal, Asprilla became the first Timbers player ever in all eras of the club to score in four different postseasons. Asprilla's four playoff goals are the second-most by a player in club history.
MLS players with 4 or more career playoff goals and 10 or fewer career regular season goals.— Mike Donovan (@TheMikeDonovan) October 20, 2019
Dairon Asprilla 4, 7
Danny Pena 4, 6 #RCTID
The strike pulled the Timbers back into the game and set the tone for a half that saw Portland pushing the tempo with verve as they searched for a game-winner. Sebastían Blanco tried conjuring up magic with a beautiful shot from distance that Nick Rimando knocked away with a fingertip save. A few minutes later, Blanco bicycled what looked like a sure goal only to have Salt Lake defender Nedum Onuoha block it off the line.
But it was Asprilla who gave the team a needed boost and he again did it in his seemingly trademark postseason time.
An Abrupt End That Still Showed Positives
Though the end to the season felt abrupt, it was one that, upon early analysis, still showed positives. After beginning the year with the longest road trip in MLS history, Portland forged a path to the MLS postseason for the third year in a row – the first time the club has achieved the feat across all eras.
For a third straight season, the Timbers recorded 14 or more wins during the regular season and posted the third-best road record (6-8-3) in league play during the club’s MLS era.
Were it not for the late RSL goal, Portland were pushing to find a win and advance again. But it didn’t happen. And while positives remain from 2019, for many, such as Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse—himself hitting a career mark of 11 goals in 2019—the club has established for itself high expectations making Saturday’s result difficult.
“I’m a little bit disappointed, frankly,” he said after the match. “I think that’s the standard we’ve set as a club. My first year (in 2017) we were Western Conference champions in the regular season and then my second year we won the Western Conference Championship (in 2018).
“Naturally I feel disappointed to lose in the first round of the playoffs. And again, there’s two sides to that coin. We are a strong team that’s meant to win championships, so it makes it disappointing.”
For Savarese, the fact that the season is over, didn’t take away for him his strong feelings around his players.
“It’s just unfortunate that in the last minute of the game we allowed the goal and then [ending] a whole season, which it has a been a very difficult season.
“I’m very proud of the guys they have done so well during the entire year to arrive here today.”
An offseason of analysis and adjustment approaches with Savarese ready to build on the positives from 2019.
“Now we have to make sure we build stronger and better for next year.”