Felipe Mora, Timbers vs. Caps, 9.27.20
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Three straight wins have Timbers feeling on the upswing: "It allows you to build confidence"

PORTLAND, Ore. – The signs outside the stadium still read Providence Park, but inside near the field, the green-and-yellow tarps which normally adorn the field-level walls had been covered with two shades of Vancouver Whitecaps FC blue, with “Bell” spelled out in white on each panel. Signboards near the field’s lines had the Portland Timbers’ partners swapped out for Vancouver’s, while the sound pumped through the stadium’s audio system mimicked the Whitecaps’ BC Place crowd, not the fans Portland would normally hear in Goose Hollow.

Though much of the rest of the Timbers’ 1-0 victory over the Whitecaps felt like a home game, the record books will list it as a road one, with Providence Park serving as Portland’s ultimate home away from home.

“There were some things that felt very strange,” head coach Giovanni Savarese conceded. “Seeing the blue color all around the walls, their commercials and their sponsors definitely gave you a strange sensation. But we know Providence Park. This is our home.”

It was a situation forced by the era of COVID-19, where Canada’s three Major League Soccer teams have taken up temporary residence in the United States to complete their seasons in a timely manner. Sunday’s game against the “visiting” Timbers was Vancouver’s first of seven at Providence Park, with only the sixth serving as an official match on the road.

“We are professional football players. We have to adapt to any situation,” Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala said. “Of course, it's very weird for us, but at the same time, crazy things are happening around the world right now.”

In time, the strangeness of Portland’s road game may prove the most memorable part of Sunday’s match. The differences in appearance were apparent even to television viewers at home. But part of that status has to do with the game itself, with a fifth-minute header from Felipe Mora providing the night’s only score.

“We had two different halves,” Savarese explained. “A first half in which we were very, very good. We pressured them high. We didn't let them play much. Yes, they did find one or two moments in the first [half], but we pretty much dictated the tempo and kept the ball very well.

“Second half, we suffered a little bit more. They had a few opportunities. We had, also, opportunities. The team dropped a little bit back, and we defended well most of the time.”

For Mora, the goal continued a fruitful stretch since MLS’s regular-season restarted, with the Chilean scoring his fourth goal in eight games since August 29. Over the entire restarted season, the 27-year-old is averaging a goal every 94.5 minutes, with Sunday’s tally putting his season goal total (four) behind only Diego Valeri (six) and Jeremy Ebobisse (five) among Timbers.

“As the games go by, I gain more knowledge about the league,” Mora said. “It’s been a very difficult year and everything that the league has done has helped me to adapt, and I think my teammates, for the most part, they’ve been fundamental for me to adapt a lot better and for me to score these goals. I really hope that I can continue achieving these things.”

Perhaps more importantly, the Timbers kept another clean sheet. It has now been just over two-and-a-half games since Portland conceded – 226 minutes, to be exact – with their most-recent shutout marking the first time in 2020 that they have held back-to-back opponents scoreless.

But it wasn’t a perfect performance by any means. In the seventh minute, Vancouver nearly mimicked Mora’s early opener by heading a set piece off goalkeeper Steve Clark’s right post. Clark had to come up big on a reaction save in the 40th minute, while a far-post cross in the 52nd minute nearly saw the Whitecaps equalize at an unprotected post. Much like four days earlier against Seattle Sounders FC – another 1-0 victory over a Cascadia rival – Portland gave cynics enough reason to ask legitimate questions. Should their opponents have broken through?

The Timbers staff will decide for themselves in the coming days. As analysts and coaches review the game tape, they’ll determine whether Vancouver’s chances were isolated breakdowns or cause for greater concern. Regardless, there is something important about setting goals and being able to achieve them. Coming out of Wednesday’s win, that meant putting together another good performance, one that would possibly be defined by the team’s goals allowed.

“When we come on the field, we are trying to have the best performance possible and especially defensively,” Mabiala said, prefacing his thought with a key caveat: “We can even do much better than what we did tonight.”

“We know that with the quality we have in front, we’re going to create chances,” he continued. “Just putting in our minds that we are not going to allow goals against us will put us in a better position to win games ... I think everyone just put a lot of pride into trying to defend well and not allow anything against us.”

There’s a huge psychological element to this. Though there are always elements of a team’s process that can be improved, being able to achieve explicit, agreed-upon goals is important. Sometimes those achievements come down to statistics, like clean sheets. Sometimes, it’s achieving a certain number of points over a stretch of the season. Ultimately, it’s about a group coming to an agreement on a goal, and then sacrificing to achieve it – the exact circumstance forced upon teams every postseason.

Defensively, the Timbers had set their goal. That they achieved it can be an important building block, no matter how imperfectly they did so.

“It allows you to build confidence,” Savarese said. “It allows you to make sure that you feel that you’re working in the right direction. It’s an example that when you all are in tune with each other and work together, you can achieve the goal that you’re looking for ...”

Now, Portland gets a week with no midweek matches. Tired legs that had to be preserved over the last games will get a chance to rest and recharge. Then, when the Colorado Rapids visit the Rose City next Saturday (8pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)), the Timbers will get to put their new confidence into practice. They’ll do so as the home team, too.

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