ORLANDO, Fla. – Seven days ago, Portland Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark came off one of the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex’s training fields, faced a sideline interview for the first time since March, and gave an answer that was both optimistic and, amid a four months between games, unverifiable.
“We're certainly ahead of where we were in March,” he said, the day after the team’s first 11-versus-11 action in Orlando. “I feel really good about it.”
Perhaps it’s apt, then, that the Timbers’ 2-1 victory over the LA Galaxy to open their MLS is Back Tournament Group Play presented by Heineken was sparked by Portland’s number one. Early in Friday’s first half, Clark delivered a diving save on a penalty kick from Galaxy star Javier "Chicharito" Hernández. He replicated the feat moments later, stopping a point-blank attempt from Sacha Klejstan after the Galaxy midfielder was first to the rebound.
It was a moment that could have sent the Timbers back into March’s mindset. But Clark stepped up, and over the course of Monday’s fill 90 minutes, Portland made it seem like the team’s slow start to the 2020 season was left in a forgotten world.
“That’s the confidence that our goalkeepers give us,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said afterward. “Not only Clark. [Aljaz] Ivacic, Jeff [Attinella]. [The confidence] that they’re always going to give everything. [Clark’s save] was a key moment in the game. for sure.”
It’s the type of energy the Timbers have carried throughout their preparations for the MLS is Back Tournament, a six-week process that began as players returned to training from their novel coronavirus isolations and culminated with Monday’s final whistle. Throughout that time, the Timbers seemed to grow closer together, using four months’ perspective on March’s 1-1-0 start to address the team’s foundations. Come kickoff against the Galaxy, doubts seeded in late winter had given way to a confidence born of new commitment.
“I think we bonded,” midfielder Eryk Williamson said earlier this week, also speaking about the team’s possible improvement since March. “We missed each other. Being together on the field again, we finally feel as one group … everyone is starting to understand what this game means to him.”
The Timbers certainly weren’t the only team to speak confidently before their first kickoff in Orlando. Quotes like Clark’s and Williamson’s are pro forma in the world of professional sports. But it’s still noteworthy that the players were not only confident but they backed up that confidence, doing so in a way that reflected their attitude.
When Dario Zuparic’s handball gave Hernández his early chance from the spot, Clark provided a remedy. He did his part. When, throughout the remainder of the half, the attack’s control failed to create clear chances, poise at the back from defenders Larrys Mabiala and Zuparic helped keep the team settled. Then, after halftime, as space began to be exploited between Galaxy lines and defenders, it was the composed confidence of Diego Valeri, Yimmi Chara, Sebastián Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse that delivered the latter’s breakthrough goal. Blanco soon added a goal to his assist to give the Timbers their winning score.
“This is a very important win,” Blanco explained in Spanish after the match. “It has been four months, four long months without any competition or friendly matches. Mentally, it was very difficult, [as well as] physically.
“It’s very important to be able to start this way because it gives us a lot of trust and it shows how seriously we’re taking this competition, and how hard we’ve been working.”
Even when the team gave the Galaxy hope near the end, going down to 10 and conceding after Zuparic’s second yellow card, the team’s composure was markedly different than its season-opening game against Minnesota United FC, or the matches in the preseason tournament where the defense faltered. Even after the Galaxy pulled back one goal on Monday, Portland maintained a measure of control. For some of the game’s final 15 minutes, it was easy to forget Portland had one fewer player on the field.
“[The] experience that we have with Valeri, Blanco], [Diego] Chara, Mabiala and others in this type of competition, in playoff time, they step it up and they bring the younger players with them as well,” Savarese said, when asked about the Timbers’ tournament performances. “Today, all around, it was a good performance. We can still be better in some areas, but I think overall it was a deserved win for us.”
Zuparic’s late dismissal will surely hurt the Timbers this weekend. For the second game of their tournament, they’ll be without a key defensive cog, facing a Houston Dynamo attack that looked potent on Monday against Los Angeles FC. As the Timbers left the stadium in Tuesday’s hours, though, Saturday seemed very far off. After over a month’s preparation, the team earned their right to live in the moment.
“It’s been a challenge on and off the field, given the pandemic and the racial injustice going on around this country,” Ebobisse said. “Those emotions and the distress you build up during these tough times, sometimes they carry onto the field where you can’t find that sense of freedom and sanctity. Luckily tonight we were on message [and] in-form given that it was our first game in four months, and for me personally, my first extended minutes competitively since November. Overall, very happy with the result.”
Later today, that moment will fade. The preparations for Houston will have to begin. But when they do, they will do so with the Timbers two points in front of Houston and Los Angeles FC, knowing a win on Saturday will practically clinch a spot in the tournament’s knockout round.
After 90 minutes in Orlando, it seems Clark was right. The Timbers may have moved on from March.