For the Portland Timbers, Sunday night’s game at Los Angeles FC changed over the course of 15 minutes, going from a tight contest played on the Timbers terms to one where Portland, from halftime to the final whistle, was forced to chase the game. Allowing three goals between the match’s 37th minute and halftime, Portland never fully caught up, ultimately falling to LAFC, 4-2.
“It’s unfortunate, because there were a lot of good moments in this match,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said, “and in 15 minutes, we gave up three goals.
“It wasn't positive, especially for the great 30 minutes that we played at the beginning, where we didn't give any chances to LAFC. We controlled the match, and then after the water break, I think we felt too comfortable …”
Portland was the more dangerous side throughout most of the second half and had constrained LAFC over the match’s first 30 minutes, taking a 1-0 into the hydration break thanks to Eryk Williamson’s 25th-minute opener. Ten of the 11 Timbers touched the ball in the buildup to the goal, with the only player who didn’t contribute a touch, forward Jeremy Ebobisse, providing a vital run and an unintended pick in the attack’s final moments. As Williamson moved around LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye to finish into a relatively unprotected goal, Portland seemed to have LAFC figured out.
But as quickly as Portland capitalized on their control, that control was lost, beginning after the first water break. Once play resumed, Los Angeles FC began to look like its typical self, creating chances from wide by sending passes across the face of goal, eventually earning a corner kick that Kaye volleyed home in the 37th minute.
Four minutes later, Diego Rossi put Los Angeles in front, converting off what felt like a trademark LAFC movement – building with speed through the middle before finding a runner coming in from wide. The span’s final score – a close-range, Bradley Wright-Phillips finish off of blown set piece coverage – marked the night’s winning goal.
“It was mentality,” Savarese offered, when asked what changed. “It was mentality, and that's all.
“We didn't do the same things, similar to the beginning of the match. We started pressure a little bit too high. We allowed them to be able to [play] balls through the lines. At that point, our midfielders were giving too much space, allowing the three midfielders that they have to find the ball easily. And once the three midfielders in their team had the ball, they put balls in behind for the runners …
“[I]f we continued to do the same things that we did in the very first minutes, and especially the majority of the second half, there's no way that we concede this amount of goals in the way we did in those 15 minutes.”
A change in mentality is not new for Portland. Over a three-game stretch to restart the MLS regular season, the Timbers conceded 10 goals, with Savarese highlighting his team’s mental approach as a reason for Portland’s breakdowns. Going back to when the Timbers faced LAFC at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, there was a similar let down to Sunday’s, with Portland taking a lead early in the teams’ group-stage game before conceding twice before halftime.
As far as his mentality diagnosis, Saverese was not alone. To varying degrees, each of Portland’s Sunday goalscorers pointed to their team’s loss of focus.
“It was just a mental breakdown from us,” Williamson said, when asked about the first-half’s close. “Everyone's frustrated about those 15 minutes, and it's something that we need to focus on and get better at … We ultimately gave the game away in that kind of moment.”
“[LAFC] must have discussed something coming out of that water break,” Ebobisse, the Timbers’ second goalscorer, said, “because they really did expose a couple of spaces, maybe some lapses in concentration on our end as well ... It's unfortunate to have dug ourselves that hole.”
The Timbers were missing three of their most important players on Sunday, though they weren’t alone in dealing with absences. LAFC was without 2019 Most Valuable Player Carlos Vela, and defensive midfielder Eduard Atuesta, returning from injury, was limited to a late-match role. But Portland was still without Sebastián Blanco, having suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear last Sunday in Seattle. They were without Diego Chara, serving a suspension for yellow-card accumulation. And they were without Larrys Mabiala, who missed the game with a thigh injury.
While Portland’s performances despite those absences provide “something to look at on the positive side,” according to Williamson, the Timbers have shown they are capable of going matches without losing focus. It was only seven days ago, in an important match at rival Seattle Sounders FC, that Portland put together their most complete performance of the regular season, beating one of the league’s best teams, 2-1.
One week later, the lapses returned.
“Again, we say the same thing,” Savarese noted, “We need to make sure that we have matches that are complete, like the one that we played in Seattle.”
Though some might advise a short memory before Wednesday’s game at the San Jose Earthquakes (6:30pm PT, FS1) – the first of two trips to San Jose this week – the Timbers would be better served remembering Sunday’s mistakes. At some point between last Sunday and this one, the team reset. They lost the urgency needed to put in a complete performance. Before Wednesday, Portland needs to remember how to be their best selves.