Jeremy Ebobisse, Timbers @ RSL, 10.14.20
(USA Today Sports Images)

Frustrated by end of winning streak, Timbers look to learn and move past loss to RSL

The Portland Timbers’ five-game winning streak is over, and its demise came down to how the team performed over their first 45 minutes in Utah. Conceding twice within the first 26 minutes, Portland went into halftime with a deficit too large for them to overcome, eventually losing, 2-1, at Real Salt Lake to snap the team’s winning run.

“The mistakes that we made in the first half penalized us to then have to chase the match in the second half,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese explained after the match. “We had a very good second half. We created chances. We played most of the time in their [side of the] field … but it's always difficult when you give up two goals by mistakes, by little things that needed to be better.”

The opening goal came after a moment of miscommunication between Aljaz Ivacic, starting in Portland’s goal in place of Steve Clark, and the team’s defensive line, with a ball cleared to Douglas Martínez allowing the RSL striker to put his team in front. Fifteen minutes later, a well-designed play off a corner kick from the home team allowed Demir Krailach to finish from the middle of the penalty box, with his marker, Larrys Mabiala, unable to close down the shot after multiple well-executed RSL picks.

The halftime score would have been even more lopsided had Ivacic not come up with good saves in the 29th and 32nd minutes, but according to Savarese, the team was calm at the break despite a disappointing first period.

“There was tranquility and understanding that we didn't do some of the things that we needed to do ...,” he said, when asked about the team’s halftime mood. “[In the] first half, we were a little bit too timid, and we were not pressuring quick enough. We were not good with the ball the way we wanted to be …”

The Timbers’ quality on the ball improved dramatically in the second half, though much of their early second-half possession failed to produce good chances. The first opportunities that came were largely off dead balls. But come the 77th minute, one of those dead balls bore fruit, with Bill Tuiloma’s first goal of the season cutting RSL’s lead to one.

“Obviously, I was happy ...,” Tuiloma said of his goal. “We pushed in the second half. We were a lot better … I’m always happy to score, but my first thought was to get the ball and get going, try to push for that second goal.”

By night’s end, despite a near-Yimmi Chara equalizer moments after Tuiloma’s goal, the realities of the Timbers’ week had begun to set in – realities that are no different than other Major League Soccer teams face during a strange 2020. To make up as many games as possible, teams’ schedules are very compacted, which means at times, the challenges of short rest are compounded by those of travel. On Wednesday, Portland tried to deal with that by making big changes to their starting lineup, with six new players in the XI compared to Sunday’s win over San Jose.

“It becomes a mental battle, and the first half, we just looked tired,” Savarese said, when asked if his team’s lack of recovery time played a part in the loss. “We just had that in mind, that we couldn't go. But in the second half, we lost a little bit of the fear, and we were able to do much better. Nevertheless, you could tell. Only two days of rest is not easy.”

Those circumstances help explain why winning streaks like Portland’s are so rare. The five-game run that ended on Wednesday was the Timbers’ first streak of that length since early in the 2018 season, when Savarese’s first season in Portland saw his team enjoy a prolonged surge after a poor start.

Had the Timbers won at Real Salt Lake, they would have tied a club record for longest winning streak, a record that was set during that 2018 run. That Wednesday’s first half cost them that chance added to the sting of the result.

“It's a bad feeling,” the team’s captain, Diego Valeri, said about the way the streak was snapped. “We were not very focused the first 10, 15 minutes. They won a lot of duels, long balls. We were not in the game, and they took advantage of it … It's a bad feeling, because we were very confident.”

Wednesday’s loss coming shortly after the Timbers seemed to hit a stride will make the result more frustrating, particularly for fans just getting used to the team’s place near the top of the Western Conference. But that place went unchanged on Wednesday. Seattle Sounders FC, tied with Portland at the top of the standings, didn’t play, while third-place Sporting Kansas City lost at FC Dallas. As much as early fall feels like the time to focus on playoff scenarios, Major League Soccer’s format is a forgiving one, with a loss one month out from the postseason’s start rarely too much to overcome.

Plus, the Timbers will soon have a chance to reclaim their place in the league’s pecking order. Although Sunday’s visitor to Providence Park, Los Angeles FC, are flying at lower levels than they did last season, they are still a prestige team, and victories over them tend to get more notice.

If the Timbers get back into the win column on Sunday (7pm PT, ROOT SPORTS), their loss at RSL will be seen as an exception. Now, it’s their job to make sure Wednesday’s outcome doesn’t become the new rule.