PORTLAND, Ore. – The discussion around Major League Soccer after Wednesday’s game at Providence Park will center on the LA Galaxy’s slide, and rightly so. When a five-time champion is going through this kind of moment – one that leaves the team mired at the bottom of their conference – it’s fair to ask why, and how.
That the Portland Timbers put their struggling guests away early is also, at some point, worthy of note, particularly given what their victory means for the race in the Western Conference. Thanks to two early goals from Jaroslaw Niezgoda and a penalty converted by Diego Valeri, the Timbers were up 3-0 after 31 minutes, eventually winning 5-2 to clinch the club’s fourth-straight playoff spot.
“First of all, we achieved the first goal that we [set for] ourselves: to qualify for the playoffs,” Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese said after the match. “Credit to the players ... I thought the guys played a fantastic match. Just from the beginning to the end, we looked like a mature team.”
The Galaxy enjoyed their best stretch of the match coming out of halftime, taking advantage of a passing error from Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark to make it 3-1. Then, LA nearly got a second goal from Carlos Pavón in the 58th minute – a score that would have cut Portland’s lead to one. Two minutes later, though, Portland midfielder Eryk Williamson scored his second goal of the season, with Andy Polo’s late, highlight-reel goal making Pavón’s stoppage-time tally a relative footnote.
The victory moved the Timbers into a tie for second in the Western Conference, even with Seattle Sounders FC but one point behind Sporting Kansas City, who also clinched a playoff spot on Wednesday. If speculation holds that Major League Soccer will eventually order their standings by points-per-game, not points, that order may change. Even then, the Timbers' fight for first only intensified after the night’s results.
“We all know the benefits of finishing first, so teams are going to try and get them,” Portland winger Yimmi Chara said after this three-assist night. “We are in this fight. We want to play home games [during the playoffs]. It’s important to us.”
In terms of what we learned about each team on Wednesday, the result said more about the Galaxy’s plight than the Timbers’ potential. Over the course of the first half, LA had only one successful pass into Portland’s penalty area, and while the visitors did improve in the second half, the match never got closer than two goals.
“We saw the Galaxy came strong in the second half,” Savarese said. “They put in two [new players, Sacha Kljestan and Sebastian Lletget] in order to change what they were doing a little bit. But I thought the [Timbers] played a phenomenal match … the first 30 minutes were very, very strong from the players, coming with the right mentality to a very key match today.”
That Portland didn’t play down to the Galaxy may not be the most glamorous of conclusions, but it is still important, particularly for a team which, over its two previous matches, didn’t score enough goals in regulation time to prevent stoppage-time disappointment. Against both Los Angeles FC and Seattle Sounders FC, the Timbers carried 1-0 leads past the 90th minute but went to the locker room drawn.
On Tuesday, Savarese cited the team’s lack of goals when asked about those draws. To him, the chances missed against LAFC, in particular, stood out. While the Galaxy aren’t playing on the same level as either their crosstown rivals or Seattle, Portland still made sure to keep the match out of reach, something they were unable to do during LA’s previous visit to Providence Park.
“We knew that it was going to be a difficult match, and I mentioned it prior to the game,” Savarese said. “The players understood, and they were able to come into the match with the right mentality, with the right intensity, and from the beginning, we saw a team that wanted to get a win.”
After the Timbers’ first three goals, Wednesday’s game took on a fatalistic feel – the type of match we see late in seasons when one team is building toward the playoffs while the other has lost their identity. For that reason, this win won’t be remembered as one of Portland’s standout moments. But the night still went as planned. Instead of giving the Galaxy hope, the Timbers eliminated all doubt, and did so before the teams’ first return to the locker rooms.