ORLANDO, Fla. – You would have expected a combination of relief and reward after the Portland Timbers’ 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday night in the semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament Knockout Stage presented by Audi, and certainly, there were elements of both at the final whistle. But after 35 days spent 3,000 miles from home, the result came with a single, ultimate reward – one milestone that makes the sacrifice of a six week’s sequester worthwhile.
Of course, the Timbers want to win the MLS Is Back Tournament. The players have said so all week. “We made it to the semifinals. Might as well go all the way,” Bill Tuiloma, a late substitute on Wednesday, said two days before. “All the way” isn’t merely making the final. It’s finishing on top.
Based on Wednesday’s performance, there’s no reason to think the Timbers can’t. They were beguiling in their finishing, creating numerous chances across the 90 minutes that could have left the game out of reach. And in the penalty kick conceded in the first half – the fifth Portland’s given this tournament – the late foul turned goal allowed, and an equalizer waved off for offside, the Timbers gave fans too many reasons to think a good performance would be squandered.
But it was an undoubtedly good performance, one where so many of the Timbers’ 15 shots seemed dangerous, while too few of Philadelphia’s 17 were worrisome. Now 4-0-2 in the tournament, Portland has thoroughly earned its spot in next Tuesday’s tournament final.
“Great performance from the players,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said in his post match press conference. “Extremely proud of the way the guys were able to execute the plan. A lot of discipline. A lot of work. A lot of honesty in the game from the guys to make sure that we got a very important result..”
From early in the first half, after the match’s obligatory settling in period, the game felt as it the Timbers would keep the upper hand, even if that feeling didn’t last through full time. In possession, they were able to move the ball through and around Philadelphia’s shape, to the other side of the Union’s midfield diamond, while patience in defense was producing chances to counterattack behind their opponents’ right side. An early opportunity for left back Jorge Villfaña, unrequited after the veteran over ran the ball, hinted at how the Timbers could exploit the Union, while an early corner converted by Jeremy Ebobisse ensured Portland would never trail.
By halftime, though, the match felt very Portland 2020; or, at least, the version of the 2020 Timbers that has emerged in Florida. The game was being played on Portland’s terms, with many of the best chances going the Timbers’ way, but a reasonable person could say the team was lucky to get into halftime with a 1-0 lead. A Union penalty kick, skied into the protective netting behind the goal by Sergio Santos, meant Sebastián Blanco’s foul near goal would go unpunished.
Over the final 45 minutes, Portland dominated chances without dominating the ball. Blanco would eventually score the game’s winning goal, finishing from close range after Dario Zuparic headed down a corner, but the Timbers should have had more. Diego Valeri fired into goalkeeper Andre Blake’s stomach after being setup by Jaroslaw Niezgoda. The Polish striker in turn could have had multiple goals, had he not chosen to pass on quality chances while trying to set up others. At one point, Andy Polo nearly replicated his dramatic goal from the quarterfinal win over New York City FC, while Felipe Mora elected to hold up a ball in the penalty area late instead of turning to shoot while Blake was drawn from goal.
It was everything we’ve begun to expect from the current Timbers, from the long stretches that make you consider if they’ve put everything together to the small, dramatic reminders that soccer games are too low scoring to be so confident. Minnesota United FC and Orlando City SC have yet to play their semifinal, but no matter that result, it would be difficult to argue that the Timbers should again be underdogs. At this point they’ve shown, be it against Los Angeles FC, NYCFC or the Union: when Portland is playing at their best, they can expect to win; and throughout the tournament, two-thirds of a game at that best has gotten them through.
“As you have more trainings, more games, you can work much better on your principles and concepts,” Valeri explained, “and the coaching staff is very clear on that. We work on those principles and concepts all the time.
“Of course, you can do it much better on the field as you know each other with time,” he continued, “and I think that is a part of our success. Obviously every game has a different kind of strategy, but always under those concepts and principles. And we all have the same mindset, which is to make this club and this team better every game and every season.”
There is always a desire on the part of the Savareses and Valeris to recognize his entire group, and had anybody been a weak link in Orlando, the Timbers would probably be back in Portland. But the players who have performed at elite levels still deserve special recognition, as they’ve been a key factor in pushing their team to the brink of an elite result.
Perhaps nobody deserves that recognition more than Blanco, who has distinguished himself as the player of the tournament, but throughout Wednesday’s 90 minutes, Diego Chara’s brilliance was on display, too. Whether it be through positioning that deterred any Philadelphia counter or his pressure-breaking runs that sprung Portland’s counters, "The Godfather" gave what might have been his tournament’s best performance. That it came along side Eryk Williamson, perhaps the MLS is Back Tournament's breakout performer, meant Portland maintained an advantage in the middle.
It was an edge that was reinforced behind the midfield, where the center back pairing of Zuparic and Larrys Mabiala are performing at a level the Timbers may not have seen in the MLS era. The team has been finding ways to leak goals, from fouls granting dangerous free kicks to those five penalties gifted. But from open play, the team has conceded only twice in the tournament: late against the LA Galaxy, and in the first half against LAFC. All goals count the same, but when it comes down being able to break down the Timbers’ defense, six teams have been unable to consistently do so.
To attribute that to the two center backs and not the fullbacks or the goalkeeper paints an incomplete picture, just as focusing on Chara and Williamson runs the risk of ignoring the players wide and in front of that midfield. Pick out a name – be it Villafaña’s or Chris Duvall’s; Polo’s, Ebobisse’s or Niezgoda’s – and collectively, you’ll have an explanation why the Timbers have made it this far. Link by link, the chain has remained strong.
Over the course of six weeks, teams’ weaknesses have been teased out. And those teams have gone home. To date, the Timbers haven’t been exposed, and if the foundations of their success are as stout as Wednesday’s performance implied, the Timbers may yet leave Orlando renown. A trophy, albeit a unique one, is within view.
The Timbers will play either Orlando City SC or Minnesota United FC in the MLS is Back Tournament Final presented by Wells Fargo on Aug. 11 (5:30pm PT, ESPN).