Monday, October 22, 2018

Timbers Qualify For 2018 Postseason With Resounding Win Over Real Salt Lake

Diego Chara gives the Timbers some breathing room with his second half goal.
Since our last posting, there has been a lot of things that have transpired for the Portland Timbers that hasn't been covered here. Vacation with time off and a lengthy break in the MLS schedule will do that around here, but since Portland's scrappy win over the Columbus Crew at home back on September 20, Portland traveled to Minnesota United and lost, then drew at home in a scoreless deadlock with FC Dallas a week later where starting goalkeeper Jeff Attinella dislocated his shoulder during the affair. Similar situations have derailed previous Timbers seasons especially with the team having a trip to Real Salt Lake on October 7, a venue and club that has proven difficult to deal with in Utah over the years. However, Portland ended up posting their most impressive road victory of 2018 in dismantling RSL by a 4 to 1 score (yes, I know the victory in Flounder land was impressive but this one was bigger in my opinion) behind a brace from Sebastian Blanco and goals from Jeremy Ebobisse and Lucas Melano. The result was far more impressive considering that the Timbers took the lead, RSL drew level after getting some well generated chances, and then the Timbers poured it on late for the final tally. The same two sides would meet in Portland 2 weeks later where Portland has made it their goal to dominate, and keeping with their theme, the Timbers turned in another dominant effort by posting a 3 to 0 victory to finish their home regular season matches for 2018.

The victory ensured that Portland will be playing in the 2018 MLS Post Season being the fifth side to secure qualification behind current number 1 seed in the West Sporting Kansas City, second seeded LAFC, third seeded FC Dallas and fourth seeded Seattle. The final berth will be determined during the final week between RSL, who finished their 2018 season in the loss at Portland, and the Los Angeles Galaxy, who must beat Houston at home to jump RSL for the sixth spot. Considering that the last weekend features a battle between Sporting Kansas City and LAFC, there could be movement among the top spots in the West right up until the final whistles. SKC has the most points and a win secured the top berth, while LAFC and FCD are tied at 57 points with LAFC getting the tiebreaker for now. Portland has the chance to jump up in the table with a win in Vancouver, but they would need to depend upon Colorado to defeat FC Dallas and San Jose to upend the Sounders in Seattle. Granted, anything is possible right now, but at the time of this posting, Portland is currently in fifth, meaning they would travel to Seattle for the opening round play-in match on October 31 or November 1 with the winner hosting LAFC on November 4 in leg 1 of the 2 leg conference semi-finals with leg 2 occuring on November 11. Considering the Timbers up and down season up to this point, having a playoff berth is quite an achievement but I don't think anybody on Coach Gio Savarese's side is content with just qualification.

Jeremy Ebobisse got the start and drove the RSL defense crazy.
Savarese has been pulling the various strings down the stretch to maximize points and results, and has stuck with the 4 defender - 2 defensive midfielder - 3 attacking midfielders - 1 forward formation during the past few weeks with some minor squad rotation. With Attinella still recovering from the shoulder dislocation, it was Steve Clark in goal for the Timbers with Attinella available as the bench sub. Defensively, Savarese gave Jorge Villafana, Zarek Valentin and Larrys Mabiala the starts on the backline, but he brought on veteran Liam Ridgewell as the second center back with Bill Tuiloma and Alvas Powell sitting on the bench. Tuiloma was a big reason behind the defensive success versus RSL in Utah, but Savarese chose the experience of Ridgewell to provide some stabiilty and experience versus an RSL side that has shown recent bouts of offensive explosions. In the midfield, Savarese put in his most experienced defensive midfielders in David Guzman and Diego Chara with Lawrence Olum available as the sub, while putting the trio of Andy Polo, Diego Valeri and Blanco forth as the attacking midfielders. Ebobisse has been the current choice of strikers and Jeremy got the start here again, but Samuel Armenteros and Lucas Melano were available as subs if needed. With Andres Flores filling the last sub spot on the bench, this was likely the strongest group available for Portland, and Savarese wanted to make sure his team didn't digress. Portland also had some suspension concerns with both Guzman and Chara one match away from a suspension if they received a caution in this match.

RSL's playoff hopes took a huge hit with the loss to Portland, but they could put pressure on the Galaxy in their home finale on October 18 by defeating New England. Midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Sunny were unavailable in that match for disciplinary reasons and other regulars were just returning from international matches, but RSL used a copped together lineup and thrashed the Revolution by a 4 to 1 tally. With Beckerman and Sunny avaialble again and key players Joao Plata, Jefferson Savarino, Albert Rusnak and Justin Glad all back and rested from the break, RSL Coach Mike Petke had his full compliment of players at the ready. Damir Kreilich, Rusnak and forward Corey Baird were held in check by the Timbers in leg 1 although usual Timbers killer Plata figured into the 1 goal that RSL put up, but with all the players fully fit and another Timbers hurdle in Rimando in the starting eleven, Petke had to like his side's chances going into the weekend. RSL's offense has alternated between stagnant and fluid depending whether Beckerman and Sunny were able to go, and considering both defensive midfielders were ready to go, this would be an interesting chess battle in the middle. The battles between Beckerman and Guzman/Chara have become quite testy over the years, and there was still some bad blood after Beckerman pulled Guzman down during the match in a headlock and escaped the scrutiny of the officials for his actions.

Lucas Melano entered the match late and earned an assist in his short stint.
If there were any questions about the intensity of the match, they were answered in the opening minutes when Portland earned a free kick just outside the box. While Valeri struck the ball well heading towards the box, Guzman was absolutely flattened in the melee and remained on the ground until center official Ismail Elfath stopped play as the Timbers regained possession and continued to attack the goal. Beckerman and Valeri traded close misses to goal in the 9th and 10th minute, the Timbers broke open the scoring in the 15th minute off another free kick. Taking the ball from left to right, Valeri put a diagonal ball towards the right post on the south side where Mabiala and Ridgewell were lurking, and Mabiala was able to outflank RSL centerback Marcelo Silva for the ball and put a shot on target. The ball slid just past Rimando into the goal as the RSL keeper was slow to react to the play, and the Timbers were celebrating the early 1 to 0 lead. Blanco continued to hound the goal with a close range miss in the 17th minute while Ebobisse was very busy creating space and passes in the offense when Portland could find room to move. RSL was content to pressure Chara and Guzman and flood the middle with Sunny and Beckerman clogging the channels by any mean's possible. Beckerman's tactics earned him a caution in the 27th minute when he flattened Guzman at mid pitch, and the Timbers crowd were keying on number 5 for RSL every where he went on the pitch.

Number 5 nearly put his name on the scoring sheet in the 44th minute off a corner kick from Plata where he outleapt Guzman for the ball and put a header on target with some pace. Clark was able to palm the ball away and Mabiala cleared it out with a header for a second corner kick that generated a close miss for Savarino, but RSL wasn't able to get their goal before the break. RSL came out after the break and generated two huge chances - a 49th minute play where Sunny intercepted a pass from Chara to Valeri on the break and the Timbers lost track of Plata as Sunny punched the ball to RSL fullback Brooks Lennon. As Lennon put a cross over to him on the left hand flank. Plata punched the ball into the south deck and completely out of play for a bad miss. RSL got a point blank shot in the 52nd minute off another corner when Plata's restart found Beckerman, who bumped the ball over to Glad, who was standing near the right post open as Ebobisse moved forward to try and deflect the ball. As Ridgewell tried to move in to deflect the ball, Glad punched a shot on frame that Clark pushed over the bar for a huge reaction save. RSL couldn't believe they missed the shot, while Clark celebrated the deflection with his teammates.

Steve Clark made several huge saves to earn the shutout & get a slab
Rusnak put another missile shot at Clark in the 60th minute off another corner kick that the Timbers keeper was able to block it away, and it was appearing that the RSL pressure might eventually pay off with a goal. Portland, however, was finally able to counter in the 62nd minute when Polo was able to shake off a defender and streak down the left channel with Villafana in support. Once Andy got to the box, he dropped a back heel pass to Jorge, who kept his run going and put a cross in the goal area for Blanco for an easy tap in. Sebastian, however, chipped the ball over the bar, but it was enough to relieve some of the offensive pressure that RSL had been exerting since the halftime break. The 69th minute saw Portland finally get some breathing room as the ball spun out to midpitch with Ebobisse settling as Valeri ran by. Jeremy decided to hold the ball and punch it out wide right for Blanco for a run in space, but unbeknown to everyone on the RSL side, Chara broke down the middle untouched for a clean run on goal. Blanco put the pass to Diego with Rimando forced to leave his line, and while Nick did force Chara to move slightly right, Diego was able to collect the ball and punch it into the open net to extend the lead to 2 to 0. You could feel the sense of relief by the Timbers as they were finally able to breathe a bit after the extended RSL pressure.

The final 20 minutes saw Portland push to add more to their total. Polo tried his luck from a tight angle in the 82nd minute as he was able to get to the touch line with just Rimando to beat, and the ball caromed off the keeper towards the goalline but RSL was able to push it away. Blanco and Valentin broke down the right in the 84th minute off a superb run, and when RSL couldn't clear the threat, Valentin fed Blanco with a nice pass and Seba forced Rimando into a huge reaction save to block the ball away. Rimando wasn't lucky enough minutes later when Blanco would get his goal off a lovely pass from substitute Melano, who replaced Ebobisse, when Valeri fed Lucas in the middle of the pitch with RSL scrambling. Lucas held the ball and waited to space or players to open up, and he was able to find Blanco wide open. Sebastian did have to outflank Glad and Rimando for the shot, but Seba was able to calmly slot the ball in to extend the lead to 3 to 0. The result meant that Portland had qualified for the postseason breaking the long standing even year curse that has been plaguing the team for years.

Savarese was able to celebrate the big win in the regular season home finale.
The Timbers were not able to secure any information about their fate though upon reviewing the other scores going on as Sporting had defeated FC Dallas, Seattle had beated Houston, the Galaxy beat Minnesota United to keep their playoffs alive, and LAFC drew with Vancouver. The results left Portland in fifth where they started the day, but with Sporting and LAFC playing in the final week and the teams currently sitting at 1 and 2 in the West, there will likely be movement there. All matches in the final week kick off at 1:30 PM Portland time, so while Portland will be playing Vancouver to finish their year, they will be paying attention to FC Dallas - Colorado, Seattle - San Jose and Galaxy - Dynamo. Portland can achieve 57 points by winning and have the goal differential tiebreaker with FC Dallas, but LAFC has a big goals scored advantage over both sides. MLS tiebreaker rules are points, then total wins followed by goal differential, followed by goals for, so the final playoff seedings could come down to the wire.  Portland had done their part to secure the berth, and as we have seen in playoff runs, anything can truly happen once the post season begins. The Timbers have to feel very good about their chances considering their offense has been improving from week to week, the defense has found their form, and despite injuries, the team has seen several players step in and play well when called upon to.

It is rather unsettling, however, that the finale against RSL could indeed be the last match in Providence Park for the 2018 Timbers season though. If Portland is unable to overtake anybody, they would be traveling for the play in match and would only earn a home match if they were able to advance. And it's that fact that seemed to resonate with several players during the proceedings. Ridgewell seemed very focused and emotional as rumors persist whether he will remain in Portland, and he brought out his recently born daughter during the anthem to celebrate her arrival with the home fans. With the Timbers Army doing their usual end of season tifo individualized for each player and Blanco winning the Supporter's Player of the Year award after a vote of the supporters, there seemed to be much emotion in the air that this could be the final gathering for 2018 at Providence Park. I, however, don't think so and feel we will get another chance to chant and sing for victory, but as with everyone, we won't know much until the matches complete next Sunday. But for one sunny afternoon in front of another sell out crowd, the Timbers and their fans could celebrate and bask in the accomplishments of the 2018 season and look forward to the next round of fun.

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