Monday, December 10, 2018

Abbreviated Silly Season Begins As Timbers Fall In 2018 MLS Cup To Atlanta United

There is a good chance we'll see more of this guy next year for the Timbers
While paying attention on social media to all the events impacting traveling Timbers Army members, I spent a great deal of time dissecting something I noticed during the MLS Cup 2018 coverage. Yes, the combatants, the host Atlanta United from the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference champions, the Portland Timbers, got some due, but the broadcast on FOX covered everything from a league state of address with Commissioner Don Garber, an extended interview with new USMNT Coach Gregg Berhalter, a former MLS coach with Columbus who had been long rumored as the USSF choice over the longest, worst kept secret in soccer, and an anthem celebration that was, well, it reminded me of something. Seeing the various takes from the national media after the end result, a 2 to 0 win for Atlanta United, calling Atlanta's win "era defining" as Coach Tata Martino was leaving the club after the match for the Mexican National Team job. The atmosphere was pure "spectacle" and breath taking, and it even led one local columnist to take a shot at the Pac-12 for not thinking ambitious enough about their aspirations.

Considering that most columnists still consider MLS to be a lower rung sport not worthy of regular coverage or being truly trend setting, this might very well be a true letter box moment. Having grown up as a pointyball fan of the NFL since I was very young, Saturday night reminded me all too much of that league's championship, the Super Bowl. When I was younger, the game had a bit more pageantry than the regular season because it was the season finale, but over the years, the Super Bowl has become a monstrosity. The game itself pales in direct comparison with the overblown pre-game festivities, dramatic rendition of the anthem, new product commercials, the halftime extravaganza, the end of game coverage, followed up by whatever premiere or show gets lucky enough to follow said game. Millions of people worldwide spend their day eating massive quantities, watching a game that decidedly few really care about, mostly for the outside antics and being able to talk about whatever events transpired with their work colleagues the next day. Many outlets have been asking that the Monday after Super Bowl should be a standing holiday considering how many people watch the game and drink to excess, making the following day huge for absenteeism. When a 7 year old actress/singer came out in Atlanta and belted the anthem - honestly, that's about as good as I can describe it, and I already have issues with the whole anthem process anyway - it hearkened back to the last few Super Bowls I've bothered to watch. Throw in pyrotechnics and loud music, smoke everywhere, a pre-match ritual involving a spike, and the loudest train whistle I've ever heard, and apparently the atmosphere was amplified to ADHD proportions.

The last original USL Timber is now officially gone after becoming a free agent
This was just the few impressions I got from television, but in reading various posts on Twitter, it seemed like everything was designed to make this a true showstopping exhibition. Whether this is how Atlanta matches are regularly or not, it seemed like everything was designed to showcase the city, stadium and fans in the best possible light - and I'd expect some of that anyway. As the match wore on, however, it seemed more and more like the powers that be were determining ways to anoint Atlanta as the next big thing in MLS, and that everybody else should be wary or do their level best to keep up. Call it ambition, call it arrogance, call it whatever - the win by Atlanta should be a wake up call for the rest of MLS that the rules of the league have changed, and those not willing to put in the time and investment to try and match them could be left in the dust and debris. Suffice to say, that has become more of the norm in the world of sports, as teams continue their efforts to maximize every revenue stream available and review each league rule to find any and every competitive advantage available to separate themselves from the pack. Portland itself is going through this exercise as Providence Park is getting a face-lift to add a full double deck of seating on the stadium's east side to add to the park capacity. Stadium revenue is an important component of any side, and maximizing that to augment a massive home stadium experience while denting the long season ticket wait list is a huge win.

The match itself really boiled itself down to a few key moments in time after Timbers Coach Gio Savarese chose his starting eleven: Jeff Attinella in goal; Zarek Valentin, Larrys Mabiala, Liam Ridgewell, and Jorge Villafana on defense; Diego Chara and David Guzman as the defensive midfield; Diego Valeri, Andy Polo and Sebastian Blanco as the attacking midfield; Jeremy Ebobisse as the forward. With Mabiala back, it was the strategy to use the experience of Ridgewell and Mabiala to deal with the speed and tenacity of Atlanta United strikers Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. We already knew going in that Martino was done at game end, but rumors had been circulating for days previous that Atlanta would likely be selling either Martinez, Almiron or both to bring in more money to secure talent. With Atlanta already making one big move - trading for former Portland playmaker Darlington Nagbe and adding him to a midfield with Julian Gressel and Eric Remedi - United had surged to the East title behind a powerful offense and a defense that limited mistakes. Veteran center back Michael Parkhurst and goalkeeper Brad Guzan rarely get caught in the wrong spot, so it would be up to Portland to find space and time to counter when they could. The team, however, seemed to content to play their strategy of absorbing pressure to frustrate Atlanta and then catch them on the counter when they were being too aggressive.

This guy got a new contract, which is very well deserved
In the 20th minute, Atlanta defender Greg Garza put a cross to the top of the box for Martinez, and Mabiala tapped the ball away as Josef rolled to the turf. The home crowd and many observers felt the contact warranted a penalty, but it appeared that Mabiala not only got to the ball, but didn't really touch Martinez. Nine minutes later, another Garza cross found Almiron in the box, and he executed a spin kick shot towards the left post that Attinella pushed clear for a corner. The tempers were flaring more as the minutes continued until the 39th minute when Parkhurst cleaned out Ebobisse off a clearance, and the ball rebounded back to Martinez, standing at the top of the box without a mark and clear on goal. Mabiala was slow in tracking back, which allowed Martinez to stay inline, and despite the efforts of Ridgewell and Attinella, Martinez put in the easy tap in to give the home side a 1 to 0 lead. Portland, however, had a huge response as Blanco put a cross into the box for Ebobisse, and the youngster put a header on frame that forced a late reaction save from Guzan. The fact that Jeremy did this while being bracketed and fouled was impressive, but Ebobisse did need treatment after landing awkwardly. The match went into the half with Atlanta clinging to the 1 to 0 lead, but the next goal would likely be the key - Portland gets it, it's game on, but if Atlanta could add to their lead, it might be game over.

Portland ramped up the tempo to start the second half and seemed very re-energized after the break, but it was United that caught the first break when Mabiala was called for a foul on Martinez on a back pass. While Larrys got to the ball and cleared it initially, Center Official Alan Kelly judged Mabiala had gone through Martinez, even thought it appeared on replay that Josef was already going to ground. Almiron's restart found the head of Martinez, who punched it wide right for defender Franco Escobar, and his tap in past Attinella extended the lead to 2 to 0. While Portland did have some chances late after adding Lucas Melano, Alvas Powell and Dairon Asprilla on, Atlanta was able to ride out the match to secure their first ever MLS Cup. Atlanta's strategy of bracketing Valeri and Blanco to force somebody else to beat them seemed to work, as Valeri was held relatively in check most of the night, while Blanco was able to unleash a few quality shots and the cross to Ebobisse. In this round of the playoffs, Portland's supporting cast had been able to provide a spark or play to help their team secure a result, but on this night, the magic finally wore out and the Timbers didn't have an answer. Savarese was very happy at his team's effort, saying they couldn't have given much more, although he felt the officiating cost Portland dearly with the foul on Mabiala that gave Atlanta their free kick chance for goal number two.
This guy is now officially a Portland Timber and not just on an extended loan.

It certainly seemed very somber after the match and the following day when the team returned to Portland, knowing that the 2018 was done and it was another side that was hoisting MLS Cup. The business of the 2019 MLS season had already begun as rumors and news of various trades had already been filling social media. Portland had to make some key decisions about their squad - it seems Attinella is the number 1 goalkeeper, but who backs him up? Does the defense need an upgrade? What does Portland do to augment their midfield to support and eventually replace Chara and Valeri? Does this team need more creativity and firepower, now that it appears that Samuel Armenteros is not part of their long term plans? How do you find experience to fill needs while not squashing the developing youth that will man this club in a few years? Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson might have his critics from years of being a coach during darker times or making unusual personnel decisions over the years, but in his tenure at the helm of the Timbers, Thorns and Timbers 2, we've seen 3 championships, several playoff berths and other accolades. It's not a perfect record, but Wilkinson seems to have found a formula that works with Savarese's tactics and it produced a feisty, resourceful Portland team that was fun to watch most nights. Although MLS Cup wasn't their best overall effort, it was a joy to watch this group fight and claw to the Western Conference title. 

 On the eve of the next MLS Expansion Draft to populate FC Cincinnati's first MLS roster for next year, the Timbers announced their 2019 roster status before offseason moves can begin. After forward Fanendo Adi was traded to FC Cincinnati, there were reports that the teams have a handshake agreement that nobody from the Timbers will be picked during the 5 selections made on December 11. Portland also released the current contract status for their entire team:

Under 2019 Contract: goalkeeper Jeff Attinella; defenders Julio Cascante, Marco Farfan, Larrys Mabiala, Alvas Powell, Liam Ridgewell, and Jorge Villafana; midfielders Diego Chara, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, Dairon Asprilla, David Guzman and Erik Williamson; and forward Lucas Melano. 
Loan Extended: midfielder Cristhian Paredes (Club America)
Loan Converted to Contract: midfielder Andy Polo. Polo completed the necessary contract thresholds for his contract to revert to the Timbers, and he is now officially a Timbers signee.
Re-Signed Contract: defender Zarek Valentin, who got a new deal to stay in Portland.
Contract Options Extended: goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh, defenders Modou Jadama and Bill Tuiloma, and forwards Jeremy Ebobisse and Foster Langsdorf.
Contracts Not Extended or Out of Contract, But In Negotiations To Return: goalkeeper Steve Clark, midfielder Andres Flores, forward Tomas Conechny.
Contracts Not Extended: midfielders Victor Arboleda and Lawrence Olum.
Out of Contract: defender Roy Miller, midfielder Jack Barmby, goalkeeper Jake Gleeson.

This guy is also back for another season. For now. 
Williamson will be recalled from his loan in Portugal in time for the 2019 pre-season, while Paredes' loan is being extended. Of note that Miller and Gleeson are officially MLS free agents due to length of service in the league, and can negotiate with any team regarding a contract. Portland did also add some youth when former Timbers 2 players Marvin Loria and Renzo Zambrano signed first team deals today, adding some depth and speed to the midfield. While I'm sad to see these players go - Gleeson is the last holdover from the Timbers USL era to still be with the Timbers, leaving only Diego Chara as the lone MLS Timber from their inaugural 2011 season - I do feel that these moves add some youth in key areas, and give Savarese a chance to rotate in experience to build a strong foundation. Considering what he was able to accomplish in inheriting this club from last year, I'm thinking whatever he has planned should work out just fine for 2019. 

As far as what Atlanta has done with their team and atmosphere, I'm happy the area has embraced their team and that it's doing well for attendance, which is great for the league as a whole. It has made me appreciate how differently we do things here in Portland, not only relating to game day displays, but just as an organization. Not every team can follow the same approach, and so it's important to find what works for the fans that visit your matches. I can't see the pyrotechnics, very loud music and messages on the jumbotron working at Providence Park, but the team works very hard with the Timbers Army to create a game day experience that works. Whether you call it organic or authentic, what we do here is uniquely Portland - and I wouldn't change anything about it. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

MLS Cup Prediction Thread. Or Why Now Are We Tempting Fate?

What other tricks might the Maestro have in store for MLS Cup?
This site hasn't done prediction threads with any regularity since the events of the summer when our cat collective lost our most vocal participant with her thoughts about matches. So on the eve of MLS Cup with the Portland Timbers facing Atlanta United in their home park under rather steep odds, why start now? Atlanta United have been setting records all year in terms of attendance numbers and offensive numbers, and most prognosticators have been anointing them as the team to beat since the early stages of 2018. Atlanta has Plittle to disappoint, rampaging through the end of the regular season and playoffs with little to no opposition with a scrappy Timbers side being the only thing standing between them and this year's MLS Cup. With the odds stacked so decidedly in one direction versus the other, it seems as though the match tomorrow is just a formality for Atlanta United. The thing is, this stretch run for the Portland Timbers has been fighting against the odds for months, and honestly speaking, if there was a side that could upend this party, Portland is exactly the right candidate for the job.

Consider their run to the postseason. Portland started the season with 3 losses and 2 draws in their first five matches on the road before playing their first home match; while the win versus Minnesota was a victory, the Timbers struggled to overcome their own struggles and held on tight for the results. Over the subsequent months, Portland put together a 13 match unbeaten run to help stem the early season struggles, but a 4 match losing streak in August brought up the same early questions about whether Portland had the components to succeed long term. It's been a season long adjustment for the team under new coach Gio Savarese, who took over the side this year after Caleb Porter left unexpectedly after the 2017 season. The up and down results continued through September until the result that many said gave the Timbers the confidence that they could beat anybody at any point - a 4 to 1 win in Salt Lake City over Real Salt Lake on October 6. RSL and Rio Tinto Stadium has traditionally been a tough place for the Timbers to get results over the years, so overcoming all of that seemed like a really good indication that Savarese had his team in the right mindset. The Timbers followed it up with another win versus RSL at home, and a well played loss to Vancouver in the season finale using most of their young players. The results got the Timbers into the postseason as the fifth seed in the Western Conference, but they would have to win on the road in the knockout round to advance.
Sebastian Blanco has had 2 extremely memorable goals in the playoffs.

Portland wasn't supposed to beat FC Dallas, who has been one of the stronger teams in MLS over recent years. Previous versions of FCD have struggled late or in the postseason, but with the situation what it was, FCD was expected to advance. Portland not only advanced with a 2 to 1 win on the road, but did so after losing Lawrence Olum to a red card violation that forced Portland to play 10 men for the last 33 minutes of the match. With RSL upsetting LAFC in the other knockout round match, Portland ended up being paired with their long time rivals, Seattle Sounders FC, who had their standard summer pattern of a long unbeaten streak propel them from outside the playoffs in late June to the second seed in the West. Seattle traditionally plays strong soccer after July, and they've used this late success to win their own MLS Cup in 2016 while being traditionally a tough out in the playoffs. Portland went down a goal in leg 1 at home at Providence Park, but they responded with 2 goals to regain the lead. While Portland didn't get another goal at home, they had the 1 goal overall lead versus Seattle despite conceding a road goal to the Sounders. In leg 2, the teams played a tense first half until Seattle got a goal early in the second half to get the series draw. Portland still had plenty of time to respond, and a goal from Sebastian Blanco was enough to break the deadlock and put the Timbers in the driver's seat to advance, but a late stoppage goal for the Sounders forced the teams to play extra time. After trading goals through the periods, the match went to penalties and the Timbers prevailed in dramatic fashion to play Sporting Kansas City, the top seed in the West.

Portland wasn't supposed to beat Seattle on their home turf in the postseason, especially on penalties. The circumstances of the match were altered because of a venue conflict, so Portland and Seattle ended up playing 4 days after the leg 1 match instead of the usual week lag time. After the victory, Portland had 2 and 1/2 weeks to wait to play SKC, who experts had tagged as the team to beat in the West. And match 1 in Portland ended up being a defensive chess match as neither side could tally a goal to give their team a lead, which put everything on what happened in leg 2 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. Sporting has a strong record at home in front of a raucous crowd, and with playing again 4 days later on the road, the Timbers weren't supposed to have a chance. In the first half, Sporting scored a goal and had 1 waived off due to interference in the box, but they were certainly dictating the tempo in the first 45 minutes. After having another goal waived off, it appeared that SKC was in complete control until Blanco struck again to level the match with a ridiculously awesome strike. Diego Valeri added another goal minutes later, and it looked like smooth sailing until the match was delayed by flying bottles from the crowd. Sporting got a goal back in the 80th minute to make it interesting, and when the officials showed 9 minutes of stoppage time, Sporting certainly had their chances to see if they could steal the result late.

Not bad for his first year as MLS Coach - qualifying for MLS Cup
In the ninth minute of stoppage, Blanco was at it again by clearing a ball from danger, but Diego Chara made a wonderful run to break down the left to run it down to control and hopefully run out the clock. Valeri had shaken his mark, and when Chara saw the Maestro in open space with no defense, Chara put a pass over to him where it was just Valeri versus Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia. The odds were in Valeri's favor in this matchup, and when Valeri put the shot into the back of the net, it caused a massive celebration among the visiting supporters and the Timbers' substitutes. Seconds later, the final whistle blew and Portland found themselves as the 2018 MLS Western Conference Champions and qualifying for their second ever MLS Cup berth. Portland could now plot their strategy to face Atlanta, who had already qualified for MLS Cup earlier in the day; both Eastern Conference participants had a better standing in the Supporters' Shield race than either Portland or Sporting, so regardless of the result, MLS Cup would be played at the home of the Eastern Conference Champion. Since those matches back on November 29, the experts have all indicated that it would be difficult to knock off Atlanta United in their home park with all the weapons they have and a massive home crowd of support.

However, Portland wasn't supposed to beat FC Dallas in Texas. Portland shouldn't have beaten Seattle in their home park. Portland wasn't supposed to run Sporting Kansas City out of their home park in leg 2 after not scoring in leg 1. Yet, Portland has done all of those things to qualify for MLS Cup. It's hasn't been pretty at points, as the backline has shown moments of inconsistent play and the offense has struggled to score during certain stretches. Portland has essentially rode the creativity and golazos of Blanco and Valeri, sprinkled with huge contributions from their supporting cast to advance, and right now, it's hard to bet against them while they are on this kind of roll. The Timbers have struggled in even year seasons - 2012 was the trainwreck that cost John Spencer his job, 2014 had a very talented Timbers club that should have qualified for the playoffs but bad results and inconsistent play kept them for achieving success, and 2016 saw the defending MLS Cup champions fail to qualify for the first time in postseason history. Portland has gone against the odds and tradition to get to this point all year, so anyone overlooking this bunch does so at their own risk. It might not be pretty, it might not work the way it's expected, and there might be mistakes along the way, but this scrappy, resourceful Portland Timbers side has done enough - and had some good fortune along the way - to get them a conference title.
We are back. And let's hope for more hardware

For me, the first goal of the match will likely be the catalyst for teams to adjust their attack, so I expect a chess match between Savarese and Atlanta United Coach Tata Martino. If Atlanta is able to score first - and they have one of the best pure scorers in the league in Josef Martinez - it will likely force Portland to counter and push to level, giving Atlanta chances to run their own counter off a turnover. If Portland can get the first goal, Atlanta could be forced to pressure even more with their numbers, and the Timbers are deadly on the counter - often absorbing pressure for long stretches until they have a chance to relieve pressure and challenge against the run of play. Atlanta loves to pressure their fullbacks forward, and that should give Portland a chance to attack wide, but they also struggle with wide pressure, and United would prefer to avoid pushing in the middle against the likely defensive midfield duo of David Guzman and Chara. Tactically, this should be a fun match to watch, but I'm expecting multiple goals on the night. My cats don't seem that interested in calling for a result, but I'm picking Timbers 3, Atlanta United 1 as my result which will give the Timbers their second ever MLS Cup. I might be tempting fate with this, but considering what Portland has done so far to get here, I'm actually in really good company.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Portland Advances To MLS Cup 2018 With Dramatic Win Over Sporting KC

Number 8 is really good at soccer. Really, really good.
The parallels for the Portland Timbers between the 2015 MLS Cup winning season and this year's playoff run are fairly dramatic, especially after the Timbers secured their second ever MLS Cup appearance with a gut wrenching 3 to 2 win versus Sporting Kansas City on November 29. Knockout round win? 2015 saw the Double Post win over SKC, 2018 saw the Timbers run FC Dallas out of their own park. Win over Cascadia rival? 2015 had the Timbers beat Vancouver in the conference semifinal with a huge win at B.C. Place in leg 2. 2018 saw the Timbers outlast the Sounders in heart wrenching fashion in extra time and penalties with a huge performance in penalties. Huge leg 2 performance in the conference finals? In 2015, Portland upended a heavily favored FC Dallas side in leg 1 at home, then advanced by drawing FCD at home with a late goal from Lucas Melano giving the Timbers breathing room. 2018 had the Timbers and Sporting play to a scoreless draw in Portland for leg 1, but the Timbers did something that nobody expected in leg 2 - score 3 goals on the road after conceding a goal in the first half to SKC. Without the offside flag being on target, the Timbers could have fallen behind by additional goals as Sporting had a Diego Rubio goal negated for offside in the 49th minute (obvious call on replay) while SKC defender Ike Opara interfered with Timbers keeper Jeff Attinella in the 24th minute off a Daniel Salloi header that hit the net, 4 minutes after Salloi had given SKC the early lead off a pass left by Rubio.

The Timbers have been behind the proverbial 8-ball throughout the 2018 postseason; they fell behind versus Seattle at home in leg 1 of the conference semi finals, but Portland was able to secure 2 quick goals to grab the series lead. In the leg 2 match, Seattle leveled the overall score early in the second half until Sebastian Blanco brought the match even. Portland almost won the series in regular time until conceding late, but Dairon Asprilla gave them an advantage with one of the most beautiful headers I've seen ever. Seattle once again drew even, but Portland not only held off conceding more but won the penalty shootout convincingly. In the leg 1 match versus Sporting, Portland had the advantages in offensive statistics and chances, but couldn't put anything past SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia or the stout SKC defense. Portland's defense matched the effort in terms of keeping Sporting in check, so everything fell into the leg 2 match. The Timbers did have one notable advantage - the road goal tiebreaker; anything they scored against Sporting in their home park would force SKC to score one more goal than them in order to advance. The big question in this match would be which team would score first, and if that first goal would change the strategy for either side too dramatically.

One year in Portland, all Gio Savarese has done was advance to MLS Cup.
I might have expected some really significant alterations in the Timbers attack and approach if not for one big event in the 40th minute when Andy Polo, back in the starting eleven after missing the first leg due to an ankle injury suffered during international duty, forced Melia to make a quick decision off a turn and shoot play. Blanco dropped in a wonderful pass on the left flank, and Polo outdueled his defender and just missed the goal off the quick shot putting the ball off the side netting. It was a telling moment for the Timbers, because up to that point, they had absorbed all of the pressure and tempo from the SKC offense. The Timbers weren't able to find any possession or threat to counter, despite having one of their strongest available lineups at the start: Jeff Attinella in goal; Jorge Villafana, Liam Ridgewell, Bill Tuiloma and Zarek Valentin on defense; David Guzman and Diego Chara as the defensive midfielders; Polo, Blanco and Diego Valeri as the attacking midfielders; Jeremy Ebobisse as the lone forward. Possessing experience, creativity and pure speed, this was likely the strongest available combination of players, especially considering that Samuel Armenteros continues to battle various ailments that have kept him from the lineup for several weeks now.

There have been stronger Timbers clubs that might have folded at the prospect of absorbing nearly 40 minutes of pressure, conceding a goal and then having a second waived off due to interference only to have one quality shot that seemed to change the complexion of the match. Portland was having trouble dealing with the creativity and pace of Rubio, who wasn't part of the leg 1 match, and his interplay with Salloi and Johnny Russell was wreaking havoc against the Timbers backline. Attinella was holding up reasonably well under pressure, but the Timbers defense was having trouble adjusting. The lone goal conceded officially was aided by a lackadaisical play from Ridgewell, who had a chance to push a loose ball out of danger along the touchline or back to Attinella, but Rubio beat him to the ball and put a cross past Attinella in a place where Salloi could tap it in. Ridgewell has shown bouts of being slow to react on plays at times, and the offense was having trouble possessing or doing much of anything until Polo's shot. Whatever had happened before wasn't important as the team appeared to find composure or energy to finish out the half, while Savarese was quick to point out that his team needed to find their pace in order to get back into the match.

Blanco's second half goal is the best goal I've seen for the MLS Timbers.
Rubio's waived off goal to start the second half was fairly obvious, as he was steps behind the Timbers defense as Tuiloma played exceptional positioning to mark him yet be in good positioning to show offside once the pass was released. It was three minutes later when the match complexion was dramatically changed courtesy of Blanco, who was making a run on the left off a turnover as SKC had pushed players forward. Blanco moved quickly and decisively, and launched one of the most epic distance shots I've seen from the left flank about 25 yards from goal, and the shot uncorked and flew past Melia into the upper right corner of goal to level the score. It was crazy, dramatic, awesome, and it put Portland back in control in the aggregate score series; while the score was drawn at 1, Portland had the road goal that was enough to give them the advantage. The situation changed even further when Villafana found Blanco on the same left side in the 61st minute, and Seba put a pass into the box for Ebobisse, who had a sliver of space to work. Jeremy took the quick shot but it was deflected up with Melia and Opara charging against Ebobisse, while Valeri had staked out space just behind the play. The ball found Diego first, and he was able to put a header over the defense and into the net to give the Timbers a 2 to 1 lead. The second road goal now meant that Sporting would need to get 2 goals in just 29 minutes to have any hope of advancing. The Sporting crowd was very upset at the play, and beer bottles and cans soon found their way onto the pitch, necessitating Center Official Mark Geiger to pull both teams off the pitch and SKC Coach Peter Vermes to plead with the fans to stop throwing things.

Order was restored moments later, but Vermes pulled Salloi for Gerso Fernandes to see if he could jump start the offense. Gerso challenged Attinella in the 67th minute with a close range shot on the left post, but Jeff was up to the task to make the save. Minutes later, Felipe Gutierrez challenged Jeff with a low range shot that he knocked away, but Fernandes was able to give his team hope in the 81st minute off a Graham Zusi cross from six yards out. Fernandes was able to break down the defense with a well placed shot, but the Timbers' defense was already starting to struggle. Valentin, carded in the first half for a professional foul, executed a late slide tackle on Fernandes minutes earlier to give SKC a free kick just outside the box, but since it was from behind and late, it could have been (and maybe should have been) his second caution. Savarese brought on Alvas Powell and Lawrence Olum to give more bodies to the backline for the late run, but with Fernandes' late goal, the home side finally had some hope that maybe they could steal this match late. Once Geiger's crew had signaled 9 minutes of stoppage for the second half, mostly due to the match delay and a couple of injuries, Portland knew this was going to be a wild ride to the finish.

Valentin was very fortunate to avoid getting a second caution in this match.
But this group didn't fold under the pressure and kept organized. Late in stoppage, Blanco was able to push a clearance out of the box to relieve pressure, and Diego Chara ran the ball down on the left flank in space. After settling it briefly, he put a deft pass to an open Valeri with just Melia left to beat in space, and Valeri was able to secure the match very late by tallying his second goal of the night. The match was now officially 3 to 2 Timbers, and with just seconds on the clock before the final, the Timbers could start to breathe slightly easier. You could see the sense of relief as the final whistle blew, and Portland could celebrate the result as the 2018 MLS Western Conference Champions. The Timbers would advance to play in the 2018 MLS Cup, and the venue was determined earlier in the day when Atlanta United eliminated the New York Red Bulls by a 3 to 1 aggregate series score. Atlanta and New York were higher in the regular season table, so the Eastern Conference team that won their final would end up hosting the championship. For Portland, it was their third qualified final appearance in their overall history (1975 Soccer Bowl, 2015 MLS Cup) and gives the Timbers a chance to earn their second ever championship cup. A team that had fought against odd circumstances, a very slow start to the year, player adjustments, injuries, inconsistent play, struggles on the road, and facing huge road obstacles during the postseason had overcome it all to secure the berth.

Ironically, Atlanta United is the MLS team that most experts felt would be in this situation. Their offense, with Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba, has been scoring goals in bunches all year, and their defense has done enough against their opponents to vault them to 21 wins in 2018. The key addition to their team for 2018 is a familiar name to Timbers fans in Darlington Nagbe, who was Portland's first ever MLS Super Draft pick back in 2011 during the franchise's very first days. Over 7 seasons in Portland, Nagbe tallied 28 goals in 226 appearances, putting him near the top in Timbers history for games played, but over his time here, his role was never clearly defined. Showing great talent and having a knack for the dramatic goals, Nagbe was never the scorer that many thought he should be during his tenure, and his creativity with the ball faltered at times. However, as a ball possessing midfielder that could run from box to box and make dramatic runs holding the ball in traffic, there isn't anyone better in MLS than Nagbe. And it's this possession skill that has added a new dimension to the track meet offense that Atlanta has run in previous seasons under Coach Tata Martino. Martino is slated to leave United at the end of this season, and they would love nothing more than to send him off a winner in front of their home crowd. However, few clubs in the playoffs could match Portland's resourcefulness during their season, which has been a pillar of Gio Savarese's attack all year.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Timbers Can't Capitalize On Chances, Play To Scoreless Draw Versus Sporting KC In Playoffs

Diego Chara was simply huge in this match. And he gets to play in leg 2.
4 teams, 3 matches, 2 weeks, 1 MLS Cup. If you had told me that the Portland Timbers would be one of the teams left standing in late November under a new coach back in January 2018 when Gio Savarese was hired, I might not have fully believed you. Granted, it was easy to be optimistic after his initial comments, but a lot has to occur for it to become reality. Whether it's strategy, talent, performance or pure luck that got them here, the Timbers found themselves in their 3rd Western Conference final in their 7 MLS seasons with just 120 minutes of soccer against Sporting Kansas City standing in their way of their second MLS Cup appearance. The teams played to a scoreless draw in Portland during the regular season back in June, while Portland struggled in Kansas City back in August during a frustrating 2 match road trip that saw the Timbers get blown out in D.C. United and Sporting, but neither match had either side feature their strongest teams. Portland has been much improved after that particular road trip, and they were hoping that a rejuvenated and organized offense that found gold versus FC Dallas and Seattle would be enough to break down a staunch Sporting backline. However, a plethora of created chances and shot attempts didn't produce a goal that stood for the Timbers, yet the Portland backline held strong and resourceful as the teams played to a scoreless draw in leg 1 of their 2 match conference finals.

The teams have played each other 15 times since Portland joined MLS back in 2011, and the scoreless draw marks the 4th draw between the sides without having a scored goal, with 3 of those occurring at Providence Park. While Portland didn't get a goal for their troubles despite having advantages in possession time, shot attempts, shots on target and chances created, the Timbers earned a key tiebreaker in not conceding a goal to Sporting in their leg at home. With road goals being the first tiebreaker after regular time within the 2 playoff legs, Portland can advance to MLS Cup by beating Sporting KC on their home pitch or earning a draw with at least 1 goal scored for each side. Sporting will need to tally at least one goal and hold Portland scoreless to earn the trip to MLS Cup, and considering that Sporting won 10 and drew 5 in 17 regular season matches with a plus 17 goal differential, they are a tough out at home. During the postseason, however, Real Salt Lake showed good resourcefulness to tally 2 goals at Children's Mercy Park and push the heavily favored SKC into to scramble until the final moments of their home leg. SKC Coach Peter Vermes would be without one of his key weapons as Diego Rubio earned an accumulation suspension for a second half caution versus RSL, meaning Vermes would have to replace one of his leading scorers for this match.

The Portland defense was very good despite losing Larrys Mabiala to injury
Savarese had some difficult lineup decisions to make despite having nearly 2 and 1/2 weeks since their last competitive match in Seattle. Andy Polo, Andres Flores and Jorge Villafana were playing international matches during the break time, with Villafana appearing for the U.S. Men's National Team back on November 20 against Italy in Belgium for a 15 minute stint. David Guzman was injured in the Seattle series and Samuel Armenteros has been dealing with various ailments for several weeks, so part of the planning would be to see who would even be available. Polo picked up a calf strain in training while Armenteros was still dealing with back spasms, thus making them unavailable for the match, but Flores, Guzman and Villafana were all back and listed in the game day 18. Jeff Attinella again started in goal with the usual backline of Zarek Valentin and Villafana as the left and right fullbacks and Larrys Mabiala and Liam Ridgewell as the center backs. Guzman paired up with Diego Chara as the defensive midfielders in the 4 - 2 - 3  - 1 formation that has worked well for Portland over the past weeks, with Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri and Dairon Asprilla as the trio of attacking midfielders. With Armenteros out, Jeremy Ebobisse again started as the lone striker with Lucas Melano available off the bench. Flores and Melano highlighted the various sub options for Savarese, alongside goalkeeper Steve Clark, defender Alvas Powell, centerback/midfielder Bill Tuiloma, defensive midfielder Lawrence Olum, and midfielder Tomas Conechny.

Vermes kept his approach fairly straight forward with Sporting, just replacing Rubio with Khiry Shelton in the trio of strikers in the 4 defender - 3 midfielder - 3 striker formation. Tim Melia, once an MLS pool goalkeeper that is now regarded as one of the best keepers in the league, again started in goal with his veteran defensive line of Seth Sinovic, Ike Opara, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi. With Ilie Sanchez patrolling the middle as Roger Espinoza and Felipe Gutierrez flanking as the midfield wings, it would be up to Shelton, Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell to generate chances for Sporting. Vermes chose his bench rather conservatively with just little used Gerso Fernandes and Gianluca Busio as the only attacking options and Yohan Croizet, Krisztian Nemeth as the midfielders. Sporting tends to play a conservative approach away from their home park, so it appeared that Vermes would allow his side to absorb more pressure and counter only when presented with a chance. The primary goal in the lineup, however, appeared to get out of Portland without conceding a goal at Providence Park and take their chances in leg 2. Considering the aforementioned home success at their stadium, this could seem like a wise approach, but the playoff version of the Timbers has proven to be very resourceful on the road with wins at FC Dallas and the crazy shootout win in Seattle that advanced them to this point.

David Guzman was available and nearly had a goal on the afternoon.
Perhaps it was an omen of the night between the participants from the famous 2015 Double Post match in the knockout round of the playoffs would again have the post figure into the game time result. After Blanco pulled a shot wide of the North End goal in the 4th minute that was rushed, the right post took away a goal in the 6th minute when Valentin stole a ball on the right flank and put a cross to the spot. The ball glanced off Sinovic and caromed just outside the box on a bounce to Villafana, who had pressed forward. Jorge unleashed a low lining shot with his left foot that sped towards the right post, struck the inside of it and then caromed off to the left into space to be cleared. Portland did generate several other shots and chances, with the best of them a stoppage time header by Ridgewell that Melia saved within traffic, but the Timbers were really unable to threaten the SKC defense that much. Sporting, meanwhile, had just one shot by Bester in the 9th minute which was off target, as the Timbers defense remained diligent, resourceful and in sync. The challenge became stronger in the 18th minute when Mabiala was injured trying to clear a bouncing ball away from Salloi. After making the clearance and Shelton made some contact with Mabiala, Larrys crumpled to the turf and had to be stretchered off moments later. In stepped Tuiloma, who made several key blocks to passes and shots during this first half performance.

SKC was able to get more space in the second half, and had several close calls to get a welcome road goal. Russell chipped a shot way out of play in the 47th minute off a drop pas from Gutierrez, but that wouldn't be his only close call. Russell pulled a long shot from the right flank way left in the 79th minute off a good run from Salloi, but Russell had a door step chance in the 86th minute off a deflected cross from Salloi that Shelton first received and shot, but it was deflected back into Russell's path and he pushed it wide left as the offside flag went up to stop the run. Salloi had a late opportunity to attack the goal off a drop pass, but his shot was blocked by Ridgewell out of harm's way. After a first half that saw them execute just one shot, SKC rebounded with 8 shots with a missile from Sinovic being the only shot considered on target. SKC's movement was giving them chances to attack, but the resourceful Timbers defense countered their attack with good marking and effective communication. There were some very tense moments where it looked like SKC might get a goal, but Attinella and his defense were able to celebrate their second shutout of the playoffs in front of an enthusiastic home crowd.
The East Side deck is starting to take shape but won't be ready until May 2019

Portland's offense would continue to create chances on goal, but the notable chances came in the 82nd minute courtesy of a Tuiloma header off a Valeri free kick that forced Melia to make a late reaction save, and a Blanco shot at the 90th minute that Melia caught easily without trouble. The Timbers thought they had taken the lead in the 70th minute when Sinovic took down Asprilla with a hard tackle that Center Official Robert Sibiga warned the SKC player about, but there was no extra discipline. Valeri put the free kick from the right flank to the left post where Ridgewell headed it off the left post and Melia bumped it right to a waiting Guzman, who headed it past the sprawling keeper to put his team on top. However, VAR reviewed the sequence and the replay showed that both Ridgy and Guzman were offside on the restart by a good margin, and Sibiga ended up waving off the goal. The Timbers' offense would end up with more possession, more shots on target, more crosses and good passing percentage, but Portland could not solve Melia and the SKC defense. Valeri himself ended up creating 6 of the team's 11 chances on goal for the night, but the teams ended up exactly as they started in terms of goals.

The stakes of the leg 2 match on Thursday, November 29 are fairly straight forward - Portland can advance with an outright victory or a draw involving at least 1 goal for each side. Another scoreless draw invokes the dreaded extra time with penalties if neither team scores in the extra 30 minutes, while Sporting needs to get at least 1 goal and not concede anything to advance. This situation does give Portland a slight advantage with road goals being weighted as the first tiebreaker in regular time, but considering the stout SKC defense, Portland will need to come up with some different tweaks to advance to their second ever MLS Cup match. They will also need to keep organized and focused on defense, especially if Mabiala can't go on Thursday; reports indicate his injury was a serious ankle sprain instead of something more severe. Portland also avoided any disciplinary suspensions in leg 2 with Guzman receiving the only caution of the match, so all players should be available health permitting. Sporting will have Rubio back available, and considering he is their third leading scorer in the regular season, this is an important weapon to have in your lineup. However, Sporting's defense has shown cracks at points at home late in the season, and the Timbers have been a very good road playoff side this year.

Same as it ever was. The Timbers Army does it again. 
It was very bittersweet for me personally to wrap up my 10th home season officially covering the team, knowing that this match would be the last soccer played at Providence Park for the 2018 MLS season. With the new Tanner Creek deck taking shape on the east side of the stadium, construction plans would go into overdrive after the match to get the expansion ready for the early part of the 2019 MLS season. The team has already indicated that the home opener for next year will again be delayed with no pre-season tournament, so it's likely April or early May before we get to see the team in familiar surroundings. However, I know there is still plenty to be decided in this year, and I'll be watching the events unfold on television just like everybody else. Portland might not be getting the big press or the love from the analysts in terms of their chances to advance, but I like this club's chances against anybody in a one match situation. They've certainly shown enough resiliency and moxy in this year's playoffs to reinforce the great #believebeyondreason slogan that littered social media back during the famous 2015 MLS Cup run.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Of Course It Had to End Like This: Timbers Survive Leg 2 Match Versus Sounders To Advance

David Guzman couldn't go for Portland due to injury, but Andres Flores filled in.
It's been a week since the Portland Timbers match versus the Seattle Sounders FC in the second leg of their conference semi-final, and I'm still shocked at how it finished, much less wrapping my head around the result. Considering the opponent, their fiercest U.S. rival to the north, pondering the purely insane events that have transpired between the Timbers and Sounders FC over the 40 plus years of meeting each other, and calculating the stakes of the match, it had to take various twists and turns before Dairon Asprilla's final kick of the match. It couldn't have ended any other way, starting with the Timbers having a 1 goal advantage from their leg 1 win at home on November 4. This situation meant that the Sounders FC would have to score at least 1 goal in leg 2 to win the series, as Seattle's lone tally in leg 1 gave them the advantage by getting a road goal (if the 2 matches ended up drawn, road goals would break the tie or send the teams to extra time). After a scoreless first half, the Sounders took the lead off a rebound in the box, but Asprilla found Sebastian Blanco in the 78th minute and Seba didn't disappoint to bring the score even. Seattle rushed the box in stoppage time to earn the draw, forcing extra time. In the extra session, Asprilla gave the visitors the lead but Seattle earned a penalty off a poor deflection and Nicolas Lodiero converted the effort to draw the match at 4. With no other goals but close chances, the extra time ended tied forcing penalties. In a scenario reminiscent of the 2015 Double Post match at Providence Park between the Timbers and Sporting Kansas City, the Timbers calmly and collectively made their kicks (albeit for one) while the Sounders FC had 2 kicks miss the mark. This was enough for the Timbers to advance to the MLS Western Conference Finals starting on November 25, where they will play Sporting Kansas City in a 2 leg series. Portland hosts the first match in the Rose City on the 25th to then travel to Kansas City for the second match on November 29th

Portland - Seattle matches have a contentious feel to them regardless of the situation or stakes, as we've witnessed in the 5 preceding meetings (1 preseason match, 3 regular season matches, 1 playoff match) between the rivals, but there was more tension heaped on the second leg due to certain circumstances. The match itself had to be moved up 3 days from the original kick date of November 11 due to a facilities conflict with the Sounders FC home pitch (The Seahawks had a home game on November 4 while an international car show was scheduled from November 9 - 11 on site), so it was slated for Thursday, November 8 which compressed the legs for both teams. While Seattle had to feel good about being within a goal and having the road goals advantage, they lost 2 key players in Chad Marshall and Cristian Roldan due to injuries in leg 1, and neither would be available for the return trip. Portland's offense had moments of pure brilliance in leg 1, but they had to feel slightly nervous getting just 2 goals at home despite having several great chances to add to their lead. Portland also had an injury issue of their own, as midfielder David Guzman was unavailable for leg 2 after knocking heads with Seattle's Gustav Svensson on a 1st half corner kick. Guzman left the match in the second half after feeling dizzy, but apparently his hamstrings had been giving him concern; David has been one of the consistent players down the stretch for the Timbers. Timbers Coach Gio Savarese had some decisions to make about replacing Guzman, but in true form, Gio made other adjustments to his side to see if they could secure the series win.

Lucas Melano was a late sub for Portland, and he was superlative
Savarese made 3 different adjustments to his starting eleven from leg 1. Jeff Attinella again started in goal with Steve Clark as his backup, but the defensive line got several adjustments. Larrys Mabiala, unavailable for leg 1 due to suspension, was back in the starting eleven alongside Liam Ridgewell with Jorge Villafana manning the left back spot. Instead of Zarek Valentin at right back, Savarese gave Alvas Powell the start with Valentin and leg 1 starter Bill Tuiloma on the bench. With Guzman out, Savarese gave Andres Flores the start in the midfield with Andy Polo and Diego Chara, with Blanco and Diego Valeri as the attacking mids and Jeremy Ebobisse as the lone striker. Savarese had Lawrence Olum, Lucas Melano, and Julio Cascante available as needed depending on the situation, but for the Timbers, the moves would likely be determined on the situation happening on the pitch at the time. Seattle kept things relatively straightforward as well, using most of the same players from their leg 1 starters, but replacing Roldan with Harrison Shipp and Roman Torres filling in for Marshall. Striker Raul Ruidiaz has been difficult for most defenses to deal with since he joined Seattle midseason in 2018, and so the Sounders had to feel confident in their chances offensively with Raul attacking and a rabid partisan crowd cheering them on. Despite it being a midweek match and no organized bus caravan transporting folks up north, there was a large traveling contingent of Timbers Army that made the trip to support their side and provide vocal, energetic support of their charges.

I haven't made a habit of going back to read my work at the previous site, but I admit that being there live, it was difficult to capture all of the competing emotions going on that Double Post night. Even watching a documentary film put together by MLS, while certainly impressively and thoughfully done, couldn't completely capture everything that I felt on that chilly evening back in October 2015. It's hard not to see complete parallels between the two matches despite the differing locations and participants - a first half of teams trying to figure out a master plan, a second half where a team takes an advantage only to see it countered rather quickly, and then a crazy extra time frame that led to penalties. I wouldn't say that Savarese's approach in the first 45 minutes was conservative, but it was in so much that both teams were still trying to build the chemistry and tempo needed to find a break, and with the stakes of the match essentially being a single goal, getting the first tally would be paramount. Yet when Ruidiaz knocked in a shot when Attinella had trouble handling a rebounding ball in the 68th minute, I still felt there were plenty of goals in the match. Sure enough, Asprilla replaces Polo in the 72nd minute and within 4 minutes, Dairon made a play for the ages in settling a cross from Villafana on the right side. His deft footwork settled the ball for Blanco, and Seba did the rest to level the score at 1 and put the Timbers within 12 minutes and stoppage time of advancing.

Ozzie Alonso did his usual best to disrupt the Timbers all evening.
Yet somehow I knew there would be more twists and turns to occur, and second half stoppage provided several fireworks. After Melano joined the match for Ebobisse just before stoppage, he made an impressive run off a counter with Valeri in control of the ball, and when the space opened up, all Lucas had to do was put it into the net to seal the Sounders' fate. But Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei made a spectacularly acrobatic save to stop the effort, and with the Timbers strung forward, Seattle was able to counter back and put the onus on the Timbers defense. The pressure eventually yielded when Ruidiaz got his second goal in the 3rd minute of stoppage, and suddenly, the event that didn't seem likely to happen - extra time - would indeed happen as the teams traded 2 to 1 scores in each venue. Yet Mabiala nearly made that point moot off a late corner kick where the center back put a header on target that Frei just saved in time. And because the match would now be extended, the lifeline of the away goal tiebreaker that Portland had held up until Ruidiaz's second was gone - the match would have to be determined by who scored more goals in the 30 minutes of extra time.

Extra time couldn't have started off better for Portland, as Valeri dribbled up the right flank and put a cross to the left post area where Asprilla was waiting. With little cover from the Sounders defense and Frei drifted off towards the left post, Dairon put a header into the right corner that put Portland up 4 to 3 as Asprilla executed a crazy back flip celebration followed by being mobbed by his teammates. Yet the emotions were tested again in the 97th minute off a cross into the Timbers box that struck Blanco's forearm in the melee, and Center Official Jair Marrufo pointed to the spot for a penalty. Yes, it was a very harsh call on Blanco, who appeared to be doing everything possible to avoid handling the ball, but the bouncing and location were enough to award the home side the penalty. When Sounders midfielder Nicolas Lodiero slotted it in past Attinella to even the score at 4 to 4, I had to wonder if there would be any other goals in the final 20 plus minutes of soccer. Both teams had some chances to attack the goal, but when the final whistle blew, it would be a series of penalties that would decided the series winner. Several of the Timbers weren't sure of this development as they were celebrating the result, thinking the 2 away goals would be enough to advance them - not realizing that MLS doesn't observe the away goal rule in extra time.

Diego Chara played all 120 minutes against the Sounders without a caution.
Penalties can be a cruel way to determine a winner, especially considering how random the results can be when professional soccer players take a shot without any defenders about except the goalkeeper. The exercise becomes one of inspiring enough confidence to take a shot that will challenge the keeper, yet also outguess the opposition in terms of direction and location to give the ball the best chance to score. After Melano and Ruidiaz traded made penalties, Valeri scored his to the left side, putting the onus on Sounders forward Will Bruin. Bruin chose to go left, but his shot went too far left and bounced off the post and out of play. When Blanco converted his, it was up to Sounders midfielder Ozzie Alonso to keep the score close, but his penalty went right and Attinella guessed that direction and pushed it wide right. Ridgewell had a chance to end the festivities at this point, but he chose to go left and Frei charged in that direction to deflect it wide. Sounders midfielder Handwalla Bwana still needed to make his kick to give Seattle a fighting chance, and when he converted it to put the score at 3 to 2, it fell upon Asprilla. Hit the kick, the Timbers advance, miss and the Sounders have a final chance to see if they can tie it up in the initial 5 penalties (best score after 5 wins, otherwise it's sudden death shootout). While Dairon did go in the middle and Frei got an arm to it, it wasn't enough resistance to stop the shot and the Timbers could celebrate victory on rival soil.

The celebrations about the advancement have continued throughout the subsequent days, and now Portland can recharge and recalibrate their approach with over 2 weeks between playoff legs. Sporting Kansas City did outlast upstart Real Salt Lake in their 2 leg semifinal, but the normally stout SKC defense had serious issues keeping RSL from scoring goals at points, showing a vulnerability that many haven't seen from this group much this year. Both offenses have to feel confident knowing the regular season meetings between the 2 teams didn't feature fully complete teams, and they have the ability to score goals in bunches. The key deciding factor in this series will fall upon the defense, as it will likely be won by whichever group can provide enough hurdles against the other side to stop them from scoring. The winner of this series will advance to play the winner of the Eastern Conference finals between Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls, the top 2 points teams in the 2018 MLS Regular Season. The tasks don't get any easier this time of year, but seeing the passion and belief that I've seen from this Portland team, they are going to be an extremely difficult matchup for any of the remaining sides. Experts are predicting it will be SKC in the West with even odds between the Red Bulls and Atlanta advancing, but a lot can happen between now and that December 8 MLS Cup date.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Timbers Earn Playoff Advantage With Leg 1 Win Over Sounders At Home

Why yes, we are the only club that matters. Why do you ask?
Portland Timbers matches against the Seattle Sounders FC are never easy, nor are they for the casual fan of soccer. Nothing drove this point home more than walking into Providence Park 45 minutes before the scheduled kick in their Leg 1 match of the Western Conference semi-final, and both supporters sections were overflowing with noise and songs. Portland and Seattle were meeting for the 103rd time in their lengthy history, but only for the second time were the sides battling in the MLS postseason. The last time they met in the postseason was 2013, and the Timbers, playing in their first season under then-Coach Caleb Porter, knocked off the veteran laden Sounders by a 5 to 3 aggregate score. Playing in front of another raucous sellout crowd at Providence Park, the Sounders took an early lead playing the first 10 minutes of soccer with solid pace, physical play and precise passing as the Timbers struggled to counter. However, Portland found their footing and played perhaps their best sequence of soccer all year in the remainder of the first half, putting in two goals and effectively silencing the Sounders attack. The score would remain 2 to 1 Portland through a tense second half that saw both sides struggle to capture the same intensity and precision, but the effort was enough for the Timbers to take the early lead in the two match series. Focus now turns to November 8 in Seattle for Leg 2, as the Sounders know they need at least 1 goal to even the series; however, the fact the Sounders have a road goal gives them an advantage should the 2 match series end level on goals. Portland, however, has confidence in having 2 wins against their rival in 2018 including a big win in June at Century Link Field under dramatic circumstances.

In 2018, Seattle again fell into their usual pattern of struggles to start the season, but after losing to the Timbers in Seattle and being 11 points adrift from the playoffs, the Sounders rallied to advance all the way to the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Ironically, it was the loss to the Timbers in June that seemed to galvanize the Sounders into a long unbeaten streak through July, August and September. Portland, meanwhile has been relatively consistent outside of a lengthy unbeaten streak from April to August that helped propel them to success under first year Coach Gio Savarese. It hasn't been all fun and games for either side, though, as there have been injuries and player adjustments that have affected the overall attack for each group. The Sounders reeled off five consecutive wins to finish the 2018 regular season, and Coach Brian Schmetzer has been pleased with the attack of Raul Ruidiaz (joined midseason in June), Nicolas Lodiero, Will Bruin, Cristian Roldan and Victor Rodriguez. It's a credit to Schmetzer and his team to find ways to replace injured scorer Jordan Morris and retired striker Clint Dempsey, and Schmetzer was hoping that his team could continue their hot streak.
I didn't think Jeff Attinella touched Cristian Roldan on this play.

Schmetzer decided to keep things relatively simple for his side, starting Stefan Frei in goal with Nouhou Tolo, Kim Kee-Hee, Chad Marshall and Kelvin Leerdam in defense. With Ozzie Alonso and Gustav Svensson manning the defensive midfield, Seattle would rely upon the attacking trio of Roldan, Rodriguez and Lodiero as the midfielders with Ruidiaz as the lone striker. Portland has found success recently by returning to the 4 defender, 2 defensive midfielder, 3 attacking midfielder, and 1 striker formation and Savarese went with virtually the same lineup as was used in the 2 match series with Real Salt Lake in October. Jeff Attinella would again start in goal, having fully recovered from the shoulder injuries that shelved him late in the season, with Jorge Villafana, Liam Ridgewell, Bill Tuiloma and Zarek Valentin on defense with Larrys Mabiala unavailable after being ejected in the knockout round match against FC Dallas. With Diego Chara and David Guzman handling the defensive midfield duties, it would be up to Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Andy Polo as the attacking midfield and Jeremy Ebobisse as the striker to generate pressure on Frei. The recent battles between Chara and Alonso have been the stuff of legend with 2 of the very best defensive midfielders put on quite a show patrolling the middle, but with Chara on a caution from the FC Dallas match and 2 cautions triggering a suspension, a huge key for the Timbers would be to keep Chara from getting into any disciplinary trouble.

With Ted Unkel at the officiating controls, who has a reputation for being confident but unpredictable in his calls, the Sounders ramped up the pressure from the opening whistle as Lodiero and Alonso took turns executing fouls on Chara within the first few minutes. Ruidiaz was especially feisty and active with close misses in the 5th and 9th minute, while Roldan did his level best to cause trouble when he attacked the goal after the Ruidiaz miss in the 5th minute with Attinella charging to catch the spinning ball. There did appear to be light contact as Roldan went down awkwardly as Attinella tried to corrall the ball, but the shot spun out of play for a Seattle corner. VAR Official Allen Chapman contacted Unkel to have him review the contact using video replay, but even on the review, Unkel judged there was no foul on the play and the corner kick call would stand. Roldan would get some revenge in the 10th minute taking a ball from Rodriguez on the left with Tuiloma giving chase as Valentin was pulled in. Roldan was able to drop a cross into the box for Ruidiaz before Ridgewell could find the mark, and by that point, Raul had chipped the shot into the upper left corner of goal for an early 1 to 0 Sounders lead. With road goals being the first tiebreaker in the two match aggregate series should the teams finish the 2 match series tied in goals, this tally was huge for the visitors. It was a product of a very aggressive, deliberate attack plan and it looked to frustrate Portland as they couldn't find anything constructive to work from.

The Timbers youth showed very well in this match, especially Jeremy Ebobisse.
I'm not sure what flipped the switch for the Timbers, however, but since they are an extremely good club at the counter attack, they can put themselves back on track relatively quickly. In the 17th minute, Ridgewell corralled a 50/50 ball near midpitch and put a short pass over to Chara, who saw Valeri off to his left. The Maestro didn't keep the ball very long after receiving the pass, as Diego put a perfectly weighted ball to Ebobisse, who had made an expert run between Marshall and Kee-Hee in space and the offside flag stayed down as the youngster was first to the ball. Frei left his line to try and cover more space, but Ebobisse's shot was already away and tucked just inside the right post to level the score. On replay, the call was extremely close, but Unkel and his crew didn't make the call although VAR reviews every goal for accuracy and Chapman let the goal stand. After Ridgy missed with a header off a corner in the 23rd minute, Portland would take the lead in the 29th minute when Valeri broke down the middle off a turnover from Alonzo. With Kee-Hee and Marshall doing their best to stop Diego, the ball was deflected to Blanco, running on the left with Leerdam giving chase. Blanco settled it from right to left after a deflection, but created enough space and an angle to chip it past Frei into the same right corner for goal to put the Timbers up 2 to 1. The celebration within the stadium was so huge that the press box was shaking. The Timbers added more pressure with quality misses from Ebobisse in the 32nd, Guzman in the 33rd and 34th and a shot late by Polo in stoppage time, but the pressure kept Seattle slightly on their heels for the remainder of the half.

Another situation that added some hesistancy to the Seattle attack was the injury bug, as Roldan was unable to continue in the match after a few other bumps and was replaced in the 30th minute by Waylon Francis due to a groin injury. Seattle's issues grew bigger in the 40th minute when Marshall injured his knee taking a clearance, and he had to be stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Roman Torres. The Sounders nearly burned through all of their subs in the first half when during the seven minutes of stoppage time. Svensson and Guzman collided heads during a corner kick and both players spent several minutes on the pitch getting treatment. While they were able to return to their feet and finish the half, Guzman complained of dizziness after returning for the second half, and was eventually replaced by Lawrence Olum in the 50th minute. I thought Chara, Valeri and Blanco were the keys to the first half success for the Timbers, but it was Guzman and his 85 percent passing rate, stellar defense and good orgnaization that were the engine that fueled the 40 minutes plus of great soccer. I did wonder after the halftime break if the Timbers would be able to sustain the intensity and tempo they kept up in the first half, and Olum's entry unfortunately slowed down the entire attack. Thankfully for the Timbers, the Sounders were having their own issues on the offensive side.

With Larrys Mabiala unavailable, Bill Tuiloma stepped in and did very well.
Rodriguez got a gift in the 54th minute when an Olum backpass to Attinella with Ruidiaz chasing back went right to Lodiero instead of a Timber, but Victor's shot from the right off a pass was deflected away by Attienella for a corner. Lodiero and Ruidiaz had blocked shots in the 56th and 73rd minutes as the Timbers defense started to stiffen up for the stretch run, while Savarese made the call to replace Ebobisse with Lucas Melano in the final 15 minutes to see if his side could add a third to their scoreline. Valeri certainly gave it a run in the 76th minute from midpitch when Svensson gave him a bit of space, and the shot forced Frei to push it over the goal line for a corner kick. Portland thought they had added the magic third goal when Valeri played a pass to Villafana making a run, but the offside flag came up to stop the play despite Frei blocking Jorge's shot but missing out on Melano's rebound goal that was a thing of beauty. Blanco and Valeri executed a lovely one - two run that put Diego in the box with the ball, but he rushed his shot over the net and out of play. Rodriguez forced a save from Attinella in second half stoppage off a give and go of their own, but Jeff was up to the task to match the catch and keep the scoreline at 2 to 1 Timbers. Moments later, the final whistle blew and the fans could celebrate a hard fought victory.

The Timbers might be kicking themselves for not getting a third goal on the afternoon, but for stretches of the match, they simply dominated the pace and movement and Seattle couldn't match it. In a relatively baffling bit of news as well, the Timbers weren't cautioned at any point in the match so everyone is available; consider that the Sounders had targeted Chara with some early physical play, and Diego not only kept his composure and played his usual style for the entire match, he wasn't whistled for a foul at all. Portland effectively can advance to the conference finals with a win or draw in Seattle, and there are some scenarios where even a loss could advance them provided the Timbers score at least 1 goal on the road. Seattle has to feel good about the series not being too out of hand with just being down a goal and having a road goal to their credit for the series tiebreaker, but losing Roldan and Marshall to injury are key blows to an offense that needed some creativity at points. Roldan was the most effective winger for Seattle in his short stint, and there are questions if he can't go about who replaces this key playmaker for them. Suffice to say, the series is far from over and while both teams have positives to fall back on, there's enough question marks for each group to discourage a conservative approach to Thursday.

Liam Ridgewell shows frustration after the Sounders got their first goal.
For me, the first goal on Thursday changes the complexion for either side - Portland evens up the road tiebreaker for goals if they score first, forcing Seattle to play more aggresively, while a Seattle first goal gives them a serious advantage and reason to draw the game out. It would be difficult enough for injuries to heal given a week between the legs as originally scheduled, but due to a stadium conflict with a car show, Leg 2 is bumped up by 3 days to November 8 from November 11. The compression squeezes both sides greatly, but considering the key injuries for the Sounders, it will be intersting to see how they lineup. The winner will get an extended break (thank you MLS and your draconian playoff schedule) as they await the winner of Sporting Kansas City (1 seed) vs Real Salt Lake (6 seed) playing leg 2 on November 11. The lowest seed of the winners will host leg 1 on Sunday, November 25 with the return on Thursday, November 29; Real Salt Lake would host either Portland or Seattle if they advanced in leg 1, while Portland or Seattle would host leg 1 if it's Sporting that wins. The fact that it would potentially be 2 and a half weeks between competive soccer matches doesn't help anybody in this situation.