|Number 8 is really good at soccer. Really, really good.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.