ORLANDO, Fla. – The Portland Timbers’ Round of 16 match at the 2020 MLS Is Back Tournament Knockout Stage presented by Audi played out exactly as they had planned, for both better and worse.
The team knew that FC Cincinnati would play very conservatively, amassing players deep in their half, toward their own goal. It was going to take a combination of patience, resilience and opportunism to break through a team so dedicated to preventing goals, something that happened in the 67th minute when forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda scored the night’s opening goal.
Portland also knew that Cincinnati was counting on Timbers mistakes. One nearly happened near the hour mark, when a set piece converted after a Dario Zuparic foul was waved off for offside after video review. Nearly 20 minutes later, the underdogs forged a goal that stuck, converting from the penalty spot after goalkeeper Steve Clark fouled an opposing player while trying to recover from an errant touch.
Portland eventually advanced to the tournament’s quarterfinals, winning the teams’ penalty shootout, 4-2, but the 1-1 draw represented both the success and failure of the Timbers’ execution. They stayed patient enough to go ahead in the 67th minute before giving up any real chances to their opponent, yet once they were in front, they saw victory slip away with a single false move.
“We knew that it was going to be the most difficult match we played so far,” Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese said after the game. “The way Cincinnati plays, it’s difficult to break them down. Credit to them. We knew it was going to be tough from the beginning to the end.”
It was the type of game Cincinnati plays for. They did so over the last two matches for their group stage, using their approach to get surprise results against two of the Eastern Conference’s powers: Atlanta United FC and the New York Red Bulls. Though they went practically the entire game without creating a good chance from open play, their strategy was always going to rely on opponents’ mistakes, no matter how they came. Clark’s error was one. A Timbers’ turnover in the 88th minute that led to a close-range chance for Jürgen Locadia was another. Portland almost failed to make it to the shootout.
Once there, though, the Timbers buried each of their tries, something that feels inevitable in hindsight given Diego Valeri, Felipe Mora, Sebastián Blanco and Niezgoda took the shots. Cincinnati’s Przemyslaw Tyton didn’t seem close to saving any of the shots, all taken by players who are on Designated Player contracts or Targeted Allocation Money deals. Meanwhile, Cincinnati saw Locadia, the player who converted in regulation time, have his round-three shot stopped, while Kendall Waston skied his chance into an adjacent field.
The result gives the Timbers a chance to both reflect and move forward – doing so without boarding a flight home. The forward part will play out over the next four days, leading into Saturday’s quarterfinal against New York City FC (7:30pm PT, FS1). In their dismantling of Toronto FC in the Round of 16, NYCFC put together pieces from previous mixed performances at a time when they needed it most. They could prove the Timbers’ most challenging opponent of the tournament, no matter how far Portland goes.
But before Portland’s next opponent arrives, the Timbers may spend a moment thinking about what was, as well as what could have been. They knew breaking down FC Cincinnati would be a challenge, and eventually, they met the night’s demands. But in the team’s inability to get Cincinnati’s defense moving from side to side – in the Timbers’ unwillingness to move the ball quicker in the hopes of creating space within their opponents’ formation – there were vague memories of what plagued Portland last season, when teams that bunkered upon visited to Providence Park were able to leave Goose Hollow with late-season results.
Tuesday night’s game had a very different feel. If the Timbers felt like they lacked ideas at times last season, that feeling is gone now. Instead, the ideas seemed clearer, just slightly lacking in execution. From open play, there wasn’t the quality or quantity of chances the team would have liked. Instead, the Timbers had to exploit Cincinnati in a moment of transition, when Jaap Stam’s team was caught between their set-piece defending and their normal defensive approach.
“This game in particular was very difficult,” Blanco said. “We didn’t really know how to maintain the advantage that we had after we scored the first goal. You get really tired mentally, probably more than any other game. This is the kind of match that if you don’t focus enough, you’re out. Fortunately enough we did a good job.”
This is where it helps to remind ourselves that this was only the sixth game of 2020. In a normal year, these problems would be cast as early-season struggles, whether you see them as an extension of 2019’s issues or not. There would be 28 more games to build on the night’s performance, and in that light, the performance would be a decent building block. Perhaps nobody would be truly satisfied, but so early in a season, nobody would have to be. There would be time to improve.
Instead, the Timbers’ progress is cast in light of this tournament, where short turnarounds give the team little chance to evolve. But at the end of that short turnaround, who will Portland face? Another FC Cincinnati? No. They will face a New York City FC team that’s highly unlikely to employ Cincinnati’s style. And as for possible future opponents? Be it on the Timbers’ side of the bracket or with one of the teams Portland could face in a tournament final, no other MLS Is Back Tournament survivor looks likely to replicate Cincinnati’s approach.
That’s where it seems Savarese may be right. Leading into the match, the Timbers’ head coach emphasized the view: Cincinnati would be one of the Timbers’ biggest tournament challenges. At the time, the words sounded overly deferential, but now that we know which teams have survived into the quarterfinals, Savarese seems prescient.
Portland’s unlikely to face another bunker like tonight’s, and while that type of challenge seems likely to resurface at some point this year, if there are games at Providence Park, for now, the Timbers can put Tuesday’s lessons aside. They can look at the rest of the tournament and expect a different type of soccer, knowing their growth against Cincinnati’s will, at some point, have to continue.