Timbers celebrate #2, Timbers vs. LAFC, 7.23.20
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Atop Group F, Portland Timbers have come a long way with more work to do

ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s a credit to the quick reputation Los Angeles FC has earned that, so early in the franchise’s history, the team was considered a huge favorite over the Portland Timbers on Thursday. The odds printed across the scoreboard on Major League Soccer’s official website said as much. But as anybody who has watched these two teams compete over the previous two seasons knows, Timbers matches against LAFC are always competitive. Thursday was just the latest example.

The Timbers knocked the Supporters’ Shield holders out of the U.S. Open Cup last year after narrowly losing to LAFC at the same point in the competition the year before. LAFC narrowly bested Portland in last year’s opening of the new Providence Park, and even the 4-1 win Bob Bradley’s team posted over Portland early in 2019 was a mostly competitive affair. In the seven meetings the teams have played since LAFC’s 2018 debut, only one has been decided by more than one goal.

Within that history, Thursday’s 2-2 draw in the MLS is Back Tournament Group Stage presented by Heineken is as surprising as how the match played out, which is to say not surprising at all. Portland had their moments of control, most notably (and perhaps, exclusively) at the beginning and end of the match, but Los Angeles FC defined a period’s worth of time in the middle. Though some on each side may feel differently, the draw was ultimately a just result.

“We knew LAFC was going to be a very difficult team to play against," Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said after the match. "I felt the first 30 minutes, we had the better of the play. We definitely moved the ball well. We were dangerous. We were the better team. And the last 15 minutes of the first half, unfortunately, our legs became a little bit tired. They started finding more space. They became a little more dangerous."

It was within that last 15 minutes of the first half that LAFC nearly blew open the match, using a long-distance blast from Bradley Wright-Phillips and a corner-kick conversion from Mark-Anthony Kaye to reverse the one-goal lead Jaroslaw Niezgoda had given Portland early. Portland manage to hang on into halftime and limited LAFC’s chances during a second half which, until near the period’s hydration break, was played in the Timbers’ half of the field.

By that time, Yimmi Chara and Jeremy Ebobisse had come off the bench. Diego Valeri and Eryk Williamson followed. Whether it be from the injection of fresh legs or the mix of new players on the field, Portland eventually found an equalizer, generating a series of late-game chances that culminated with Ebobisse’s third tournament goal.

“I think the players that came into the game gave us oxygen and became dangerous,” Savarese said. “We were able to find a way to score the second goal that tied the game and put us on top of the table.”

Thanks to how the MLS Is Back Tournament played out prior to Thursday’s match, the result was enough for Portland. They go through as winners of Group F, their 2-0-1 record leaving them two points ahead of their night’s foe. Having earned the honor of favorable seeding, the Timbers avoid a Monday match against Seattle Sounders FC in the next round. Instead, they begin their Round of 16 on Tuesday against FC Cincinnati, and will be on the opposite side of the knockout round bracket from both LAFC and Seattle (7:30pm PT, ESPN).

“I think [the extra day’s rest] is huge,” right back Chris Duvall said. “You ask any of the LAFC players, and that’s the biggest part about getting a result in this game. We’re all looking at the next game already and saying, ‘An extra day of rest is going to help us.’”

That extra day’s rest also gives the Timbers extra time to take inventory on the team’s improvement. After Thursday's performance, there’s more to note. Niezgoda made his first start since signing as a Designated Player this winter and scored in the game’s seventh minute. His fellow European import, central defender Dario Zuparic, had his most influential performance as a Timber. Cristhian Paredes returned to the starting lineup in central midfield, while Homegrown left back Marco Farfan made his tournament debut.

“I am very happy honestly about our play in the first half,” Savarese said. “We demonstrated that this is a competitive team. We have depth, even though we are rotating players. There is a lot of credit to be given to players like Niezgoda, in his first match, or Marvin Loría who is very dangerous in small spaces. Paredes also had a great first half and he won a lot of balls for us. Andy Polo did very well.”

Ultimately, the game’s biggest impacts may have come from the team’s most familiar sources, even if some of those sources were not in the starting lineup. Two in particular, Valeri and Ebobisse, seemed to have in part in nearly all of Portland’s chances over the final moments. But Yimmi Chara played a crucial part, too, using his speed to threaten the left side of LAFC’s defense, while Williamson’s addition in central midfield became a solidifying force. Each of their impacts built toward Ebobisse’s equalizing goal.

“I think it's a team effort,” Ebobisse said. “I know it's a cliché, and strikers say it all the time, but ultimately when you look at the service I’ve gotten this tournament, it's been good, and luckily I’ve been sharp in front of goal thus far …

“I think the team’s in a really good spot right now,” he continued, “level headed, winning a tough group, so we should go into the next few games with a lot of confidence.”

Whether Portland should have had an equalizer earlier, or whether Los Angeles FC should have made more of their mid-game control, feels almost forest for the trees when it comes to the two teams. What feels more important is the bigger trend, as well as the larger sample. In that light, Portland showed again that, over a given 90 minutes, there’s no reason to see them as underdogs, let alone large ones. Repeatedly, they’ve played last year’s regular-season champions close enough for results to go either way, and in terms of how these teams truly stack against each other, a single 90 minutes can only tell so much.

But if Portland really is back to a place where they can match MLS’s best, then they are also at a place where they can forget about March’s slow start, or think their tournament’s first two results were mere scheduling fortune. The greater arc is one that matches the team’s words, words that have continuously espoused how the group grown in their COVID hiatus. The greater arc has Portland’s offseason moves, and the depth those moves entail, beginning to payoff.

All of which won’t matter if the team loses on Tuesday. In that sense, the pressure is on, now. But for one night, Portland can be both satisfied and, in the way the middle of the game transpired, eager for more. There was room for improvement within Thursday’s 90 minutes, but at in its start and end, the match showed how far the Timbers have come.