PORTLAND, Ore. – If a fan was told before Wednesday night’s game at Providence Park that the Portland Timbers would be outshot by their rivals, Seattle Sounders FC, 19-9, they might have a hard time believing victory was in Portland’s future. But thanks to an early goal from Yimmi Chara, the Timbers defied that shot ratio, keeping their first clean sheet since March while defeating the Western Conference’s co-leaders, 1-0.
“Great performance today ...,” Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese offered as his press conference’s first thought. “The commitment of the group to make sure we got a strong win today was there, and it was outstanding.”
With the victory, Portland moved into a tie for first in the West with Seattle, albeit having played an additional game. Thanks to a 3-1-1 record in their last five matches, the Timbers have, over the course of two weeks, climbed from the middle of their conference to a place near the top.
“We have to go game-by-game,” Savarese said. “We cannot think ahead or [to] the future. We have to make sure that we put [in good] performances each game, being humble, working hard and just having commitment through the entire team.”
It was Portland’s second win in a row over their rivals, with the team’s 2-1 victory at CenturyLink Field on September 6 marking the beginning of their 3-1-1 run. Over that time, Portland has held their opponents to one goal or less on four occasions, but Wednesday’s performance felt different.
“We wanted to make [Providence Park] a fortress again,” Savarese said. “That teams that come here have a difficult time, not only for the way we want to play, but especially for them to find goals. Today, the guys did a fantastic job.”
While the defense’s performance wasn’t mistake-free, it was one of the most controlled efforts Portland’s had this season, with the team avoiding the stretches of lost focus that plagued them in August. Though Seattle held that huge edge in shots by night’s end, the Sounders’ best chances game off of aberrations, like an early misplayed ball at the back or, in the first half, the team not reacting in time for an underlapping run from Seattle’s right back, Kelvin Leerdam. On both occasions, the Sounders could have sent the game on another course, but over the match’s final half, their closest chance was a header that went high off a corner.
It was part of the reason shot totals were deceiving. Of course, if teams had their choice, they would give up as few shots as possible, but in terms of describing how Wednesday’s game went, 19-9 did a poor job. Seattle had chances to breakthrough, but they were few, and for the most part, they were early. Without those breakthroughs, Portland had no reason to change their approach.
“They looked to play the ball in behind [the defense] a lot today,” Savarese said, “but we did a great job to close those spaces, especially in the second half. We corrected a couple of things at halftime to make sure that those spaces were not as open as in the first half. Nevertheless, the team defended very well the entire match.”
At the other end of the field, the victory marked the third game in a row that Chara had scored a goal. Against Seattle, he did so in a way that was very similar to a week ago, when his burst off a turnover in midfield saw him get inside the opposing right back and in on goal. Then, that burst in San Jose led to his first MLS score. On Wednesday, it meant a game-winner against Seattle.
“Work is the key word, here,” Chara said. “The way I've been preparing myself and the way of really acclimating myself to the team has been vital to everything you are seeing right now. The result is what you see match after match.”
In a soccer world where fullbacks are more important than ever in teams’ attacks, Chara’s threat has the potential to change games – even in games where that threat doesn’t produce goals. On Wednesday, Seattle’s tactics had their right winger, Joevin Jones, overload the midfield when his team was in possession, leaving the flank to be occupied by Leerdam. Given how Chara’s scored two of his three goals, it’s unclear that tradeoff is worth it for opponents. Can you afford to let your right back play that high, knowing any turnover in midfield could become an opportunity for Chara?
“He’s a player that can definitely change [the game with] speed in transition in a second and beat you in the space,” Savarese explained. “If a [defender] is going to stay [back] a little bit more, it depends on their coaches and what they want on the field, but there’s no doubt that Yimmi will create problems …”
This was the theory of Chara when he was signed this winter, and in his performance lies a hint: that Portland’s vision for 2020 is further coming together. There’s a variety to an attack that features Diego Valeri, Jeremy Ebobisse, Jaroslaw Niezgoda, Felipe Mora and Chara. Each is a very different type of player. Each has already scored three times this season, and together, they’ve accounted for 20 of their team’s 26 goals.
With the shutout against Seattle, the vision for the team’s defense may be coming into view, too. It was Portland’s first clean sheet since the year’s second game, at home against expansion Nashville FC, but it’s part of a stretch that’s seen them concede only twice in the last 270 minutes. During that time, Larrys Mabiala, perhaps Portland’s most important defender, has only played four minutes.
“We can go into more detail about tactics, but I think we played a total game,” goalkeeper Steve Clark said, “and that's the big key, here. We've been this good for parts of games, but tonight we put it all together ... if you do that for 96 minutes, we have a very good shot of coming out with three points.”
Going forward, the goal should be to make Wednesday into a rule, not an exception. If that happens, the Timbers may be able to consolidate their place at the top of the Western Conference, even if, according to Clark, that place only means so much right now.
“It's nice to be there,” he conceded, “ [and] we want to be there [rather] than the other end of the table. But there's a long way to go … We need to be mindful, and one game at a time. We need another performance like this on Sunday,” when the team hosts another rival, Vancouver Whitecaps FC (7pm PT, ROOT SPORTS).