|Sebastian Blanco was very good versus the Rapids. Player of the week good.|
Timbers Coach Gio Savarese has been preaching the need for squad rotation this time of year, and in that vein, he's used dramatically different lineups in the 2 to 0 win over Toronto FC midweek in Portland followed up by a cross country trip to New England to face the Revolution, a match that ended in a 1 all draw. Goalkeeper Jeff Attinella left the Revolution match with a leg injury to be replaced by Steve Clark, and with Attinella now out for at least 2 weeks, Savarese gave the start to the veteran Clark with young Kendall McIntosh on the bench as the backup. Savarese rotated back to use the same foursome in defense that worked so well in the TFC match - Zarek Valentin and Jorge Villafana as the right and left fullbacks with Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala as the center backs - to support Clark in his first start in Portland with Julio Cascante and Bill Tuiloma available as the subs. With Diego Chara and Diego Valeri getting the night off in New England, the duo were back and fresh to help fortify the middle of the Timbers' tree notable formation: 4 defenders, 3 defensive midfielders, 2 attacking midfielders and a lone striker. Chara would be flanking Lawrence Olum, the lone Timbers goal scorer in New England on the right with Andy Polo out left. Valeri would be paired with Sebastian Blanco as the attacking midfielders in support of Jeremy Ebobisse, who was selected to start as the lone forward. Savarese chose not to play Dairon Asprilla at all, as he was excluded from the game day 18, but the other true forward, Samuel Armenteros, would be available as a substitute if needed. Savarese could also bring on Andres Flores, Tomas Conechny or Lucas Melano if he wanted to bring on some differing options, but suffice to say, Gio was doing his best to change the pace.
|Diego Chara was back after sitting out the last match. He was everywhere.|
Colorado has been trying to find their identity as a team for several seasons, as they haven't been able to sustain the momentum that was created during their dramatic cup run in 2010 before the Timbers joined MLS. New Coach Anthony Hudson has tried to employ a more disciplined, defensive style of play, but it hasn't produced the results that the Rapids faithful have been expecting. The team also traded away their leading scorer, Dominique Badji, to FC Dallas for exceptional playmaker Kellen Acosta, but Acosta wasn't available for this match due to international duty. With promising midfielder Bismark Boateng and young striker Niki Jackson also unavailable for disciplinary reasons after both being ejected in the Rapids last match, Hudson was trying to keep things straight forward and simple. In front of veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard, Hudson employed Edgar Castillo, currently the Rapids leader in points at 3 goals and 5 assists, Danny Wilson, Kortne Ford and Tommy Smith along the backline. Using 3 midfielders and 3 forwards, Hudson used Jack Price, Johan Blomberg and holdover Shkelzen Gashi in the middle with veteran strikers Jack McBean, Giles Barnes and Dillon Serna up top. Considering McBean has shown promise for years but never delivered consistently, while Serna and Barnes have shown glimpses of flash in their careers in MLS, this wasn't exactly a group that you could ignore. However, the disparity in overall talent was very apparent, so if the Timbers did everything they should on the night, it should result in a Timbers win. But like many matches this year, it was easier said than done.
The two goals themselves were the result of relentless play by Blanco, who lead the team in chances created with 7. Ebobisse started the play by collecting a long pass at midpitch and deftly dropping it back to Chara in the 45th minute, and Diego spotted a charging Blanco on the right side. Blanco easily out maneuvered Castillo in space on the dribble, and before Howard or the rest of the Rapids defense could recover, Ebobisse beat everyone forward and tapped the Blanco cross into goal for his first MLS goal of the season. It was a wild celebration for Ebobisse for reasons we'll cover in a moment, but on his first start of 2018, it was a huge result to add to Jeremy's impressive stat line of 3 goals and 2 assists in just 17 MLS matches played. The Timbers doubled the lead in the 65th minute when Blanco outran 4 Rapids defenders on the left charging toward the North End goal, and before anyone could do anything, Blanco crossed the ball to a waiting Valeri near the spot for the easy header and a 2 goal lead. For Valeri, this pushed him into double digits for goals and assists for the 4th straight MLS season, putting him in very elite company historically. Yet by all accounts, it could be said that Blanco shot the ball off Valeri's face considering the expert placement with 4 defenders and Howard all trying to stop the run down the flank.
|Fans have clamored for Jeremy Ebobisse to start. They got their wish.|
Fischer did allow the teams to play, and it produced a very physical, choppy game at points with both sides trying to make quick restarts and rushed plays to catch their opponents napping. Fischer, however, called only 20 fouls on the night despite a lot of hand checking and kit pulling with just Blomberg earning a caution for pulling down Chara on a break before the Timbers' first goal. I had actually thought there were more calls on the night, but if Fischer had blown his whistle at every bit of contact that was witnessed, the match likely would have ended 6 versus 6. Armenteros entered the book upon replacing Ebobisse in the 75th minute when he interfered with a Howard goal kick, but otherwise, Fischer was content to let the teams bump into each other. To their credit, Portland took a very deliberate approach on offense and passed the ball around during several long stretches from side to side, back and forth. This even included several back passes to Clark, who is still famously known to Timbers fans for his inability to clear out a ball for Columbus when the Timbers and the Crew played in the MLS Cup back in 2015, and Valeri scored the ball just 27 second into the match. It was nervy at points and slow moving, but by the end of the match, the Timbers were confidently knocking the ball around and keeping the Rapids guessing about where to go.
|I will admit, the white shirt/green short look is starting to grow on me.|
Portland now returns to the road to start their final compressed week of fixtures, starting by playing the Houston Dynamo in Texas on September 15th. Portland then returns home midweek to play the Columbus Crew on September 19th before then jetting to Minnesota to play MNUFC there on September 22nd. This represents the last difficult road patch for the Timbers this season as they return home to play FC Dallas on September 29th. The Timbers then finish the 2018 regular season with a back to back with Real Salt Lake over 2 weeks (in Utah on October 6, RSL here on October 21) before finishing the regular season in Vancouver on October 28. Portland currently sits tied with RSL at 44 points, but playing one less match right now than Real Salt Lake. With FC Dallas (49 points in 27 matches played), Sporting Kansas City (48 points in 27 matches), LAFC (46 points in 27 matches played), Portland can certainly move up the table depending on the results. However, they also need to keep winning with Seattle (41 points in 26 matches played), Vancouver (40 points in 2 matches played and currently in seventh place) and the Los Angeles Galaxy (38 points in 28 matches played) lurking.