Sunday, June 23, 2019

Timbers Earn First MLS Home Win For 2019 In Dominating Dynamo 4 to 0

Timber Joey, you should look out behind you
I have no idea what is going on here, but it's ridiculously awesome.
Timbers supporters have been waiting for a night like this at Providence Park in MLS play. LAFC spoiled the party in the Timbers' home opener back on June 1 and they held on for a victory despite a furious Timbers rally, literally and figuratively. While Portland was able to exorcise some of the demons at home in a demonstrative 4 to 0 win against the Los Angeles Galaxy in their USOC 4th round match on June 19, the team made it a priority to rebuild the home fortress atmosphere in league play now that the Providence Park rebuild was complete. This goal would be challenged by a compression of fixtures coming up, but much like the various challenges of 2019 to the Timbers, they've employed a strategy of next player up and right now, it's working. With Brian Fernandez's scoring and relentless play leading the way - Fernandez has scored in every Timbers match he's appeared in since joining the team last month - and some meaningful contributions from 2 of their younger players, Portland showed MLS a lot in posting a dominant 4 to 0 decision over the Houston Dynamo. As much as the leaders of the team and some younger charges inspired the result, this was a complete effort contributed to by every player wearing the Timbers crest.

Much has been made of the Timbers' 12 match road trip to start the 2019 MLS season, necessitated by the construction project to remake Providence Park by adding a newly configured east side in addition to several other dramatic changes in terms of travel miles and road matches. However, the Timbers went into this match having played the least number of fixtures in MLS play at 13, and with the compressed schedule for this year shortening weeks off the calendar, there is catch up in dates coming starting with next week's road trip to Montreal followed by the June 30 date hosting FC Dallas. The Timbers' opponent was also tied for last in matches played at 13, but the Dynamo were also dealing with several key player losses due to international competition. Portland was without Andres Flores and Andy Polo for international call ups and Sebastian Blanco for accumulation suspension, but Houston was missing four of their main attacking players for international play in Darwin Ceren, Romell Quioto, Alberth Elis and Maynor Figueroa. Houston was also making the first stop of a brutal 3 match road swing from Portland to San Jose midweek to New England with their main scorers likely not available for any of the matches, so as much as they could relate to Portland's challenges, they weren't going to be overly sympathetic about their situation.

This is a very arty photo.
While Nat Borchers watches, everyone points in a direction.
With Blanco out, Timbers Coach Gio Savarese had to make some decisions about his lineup in this match. Steve Clark has effectively taken over the number one goalkeeper position for now, and he again made his fifth start of the 2019 between the posts. Although Claude Dielna was very good in the USOC match at center back, Savarese chose Julio Cascante to start alongside stalwart defender Larrys Mabiala with the two Jorges as the respective fullbacks - Moreira at right back, Villafana on the left. Savarese also held back Cristhian Paredes, such a vital piece of the USOC win, and gave Renzo Zambrano his second start of the year alongside Diego Chara in the defensive midfield. The replacement for Blanco ended up being Marvin Loria, making his MLS debut alongside Jeremy Ebobisse and Diego Valeri as the attacking midfield. Fernandez again would be the sole striker up top, and considering his production since joining the team on May 6 - he has 4 goals in 3 MLS matches and 3 goals in his 2 USOC appearances - Savarese has to feel comfortable running him out again obviously. Portland would have some intriguing options on the bench with Dielna, Marco Farfan and Modou Jadama for defense, Jeff Attinella for goal, Eryk Williamson for the midfield, and Lucas Melano and Tomas Conechny, a big part of the USOC win earlier in the week, at forward. With the Impact and FC Dallas in the next week, Savarese picked a mix of youth and experience while leaving several good options available for Wednesday.

Wilmer Cabrera, coach of the Dynamo, wasn't going to use any excuses in choosing his charges, although he did curiously choose not to start Mauro Manotas within the eleven. Manotas has made a career scoring against Portland, scoring 7 goals in 7 appearances, but Houston decided to go youthful within their starting group around veterans Marlon Hairston and Boniek Garcia. The team's second leading scorer, midfielder Memo Rodriguez with 5 goals and 2 assists in 12 matches played, was also not listed within the game day eighteen likely due to squad rotation. Houston has been traditionally strong at home with 6 wins and 3 draws in 9 matches in 2019, but on the road, it's a completely different story. The Timbers have a 5 win - 1 draw - 1 loss record in matchups with the Dynamo, but within the framework of the match, it would be interesting to see if the Timbers' young charges could provide enough influence in the match to help their team to victory. Much like the last match, the two sides struggled early to find a tempo and a rhythm: Fernandez just missed in the 12th minute with a low driving left footed shot that Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis pushed away at the last second, while Moreira pulled a shot wide right with some help from Willis in the 18th minute after a strange back and forth sequence where Cascante, playing forward, held the ball in traffic and found an open Moreira. The 38th minute saw the visitors nearly take the lead off a turnover that Hairston collected, and after dribbling for moments, took a shot from the left flank that struck Mabiala then the right post before caroming away for a clearance to Villafana.

Honestly, it's great to see smiles on the pitch
Marvin Loria looks like he's having fun out there. And I like seeing that.
Off that deflection, the Timbers were able to finally tally their first goal. Villafana found Valeri at midpitch for the outlet and Diego held it for moments until finding Moreira shooting forward. Valeri put a though ball to the left that Jorge settled and he put a header into the path of an unmarked Loria, and the youngster slammed a shot home past Willis into the right corner of the net for a 1 to 0 lead. It was a wonderful sequence from back and forth wide involving the experience and youth of the Timbers, and the combination was simply fun to watch. Portland would generate 10 total shots in the first half with 55 percent possession, although the biggest issue of the half was the escalating tension between the sides. Center Official Alan Kelly carded Cascante in the 12th minute for a hard foul, and gave Dynamo forward Tomas Martinez a card for a temper tantrum in the 16th minute, but Chara and Dynamo forward Ronaldo Pena were both carded between the 30th and 35th minute in an escalating battle where Chara and B.Garcia were being targeted by each side with some hard contact during play. There were several fouls that Kelly chose to waive off for advantage, but Pena's foul on Chara brought both sides into the center circle to argue for their case. AT the rate things were going, it appeared neither side would keep their sides at eleven, especially when within moments of the second half starting, Dynamo midfielder Matias Vera was booked for dropping Zambrano with a hard challenge. Even the mild-mannered Valeri got cautioned in the 53rd minute when he bumped B.Garcia from behind slightly, and Kelly brandished the cards to do his best to stop the escalating situation.

After Fernandez missed on a turn and shoot play in the 56th minute, Portland would extend their lead via the penalty spot in the 61st minute. Chara was dribbling on the left flank and dropped to Valeri at the top of the box, and he put a pass to the right for Loria with Dynamo defender DaMarcus Beasley nearby. As Loria arrived to the ball in the box, Beasley executed a slide tackle and took Loria out, and Kelly wasted no time pointing to the spot. The penalty stood up to VAR review and a Dynamo protest, but the kick itself was delayed by several Dynamo arguments with Kelly, and a strange sequence where Kelly kept telling Willis to hold to his goal line, then walking over to hold him there for several moments while Houston players were jumping across the 18 yard line. Order was restored enough for Valeri to take the penalty going left while Willis went right, and the goal started a crazy celebration in the North End. The celebration hadn't settled down enough before the Timbers added their third goal, courtesy of Fernandez in the 63rd minute. With Houston pressed forward, the Timbers cleared the ball courtesy of Zambrano to Valeri on the right, and Diego punched a cross to the left corner for Fernandez, who was on step with the last 2 Dynamo defenders. Brian ran down the ball and put in a great touch to settle it with his left food, and he was able to punch it in the right corner of the goal before any Houston defender could mark him. Much like the 3 goals in 10 minute sequence against the Galaxy, it was a matter of moments where the match went from up for grabs to completely in control for the Timbers.

It's great to see substitutes give this much effort late in matches
If you're not jumping, you're not Timbers. Even the players get that.
Portland would add a fourth goal in the 75th minute after Chara and Loria were denying in the 70th minute off a rapid fire shooting sequence. Valeri put the ball into Jeremy on the left flank, and Ebobisse decided to challenge Willis from distance on the left, and he put a shot inside the right post at a very acute angle where Willis and the defense couldn't get to it. While Houston did create some pressure at points in the second half, especially when substitute Juan Cabezas came on, they never really threatened the Timbers goal as Clark was forced into just one official save and a couple of crosses claimed over the match. Unlike the Galaxy match where the Timbers made several late defensive errors to give the Galaxy some chances, the Timbers didn't relent and kept the Dynamo attack bottled up. Houston wasn't able to commit numbers forward either as the Timbers were able to provide an effective counter attack all night with Fernandez as the focal point, and the Dynamo paid dearly for each mistake putting players too far forward. Even when the Timbers went to the bench to bring on Conechny and Williamson late for Loria and Fernandez, the pressure was kept up all match. Portland could have added more to the tally but ended up passing it about to run down the clock late.

Of all the matches in 2019, this result was the most complete on both sides of the ball. While the defense had a few moments where they bent under pressure, they didn't break when it counted and the Timbers' ability to press forward kept Houston from mounting a consistent attack. The Timbers offense didn't miss a beat with the rookie Loria, who earned a log slab for his first MLS goal in addition to earning the penalty for Portland's second goal. With Fernandez's ability to stretch defenses and run down balls from anywhere on the pitch, it's opened up channels for the rest of the offense to find space and shoot. While Parades was very good against the Galaxy, Zambrano has shown quality to hold up in the middle alongside Chara, thus giving the Timbers potential viable options on the occasions that Mr. Chara can't play for whatever reason. But perhaps the biggest development with the Timbers is the show of leadership on the pitch during play. I saw Clark talking with defenders at several points to keep the backline calibrated, while Fernandez and Chara were doing their best to direct play with signals or commands. It just seemed like the Timbers were much more cohesive in their approach, and the players were all synced up much better than in previous matches.

Thank you for coming to Portland. You've been simply awesome!
Thank you, Brian, for coming to Portland. You've been simply awesome.
Portland now gets the quick turnaround to travel to Montreal for a June 26th date before returning to play FC Dallas on June 30th to finish this month. The travel doesn't stop as Portland will then travel to New York to play NYCFC on July 7th before heading south to play LAFC in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals on July 10th at Banc of California Stadium. The compression doesn't stop as Portland will host Colorado on July 13th followed by Orlando on July 18th before making a trip to Seattle for Cascadia Cup action on July 21st. The Timbers follow that up with hosting the Galaxy on July 27th before making their final road trip for a while to Minnesota and Allianz Field on August 4th before the schedule starts to pay off with 10 home matches in a row from August 10 to September 25. If they advance in U.S. Open Cup play, the semifinals and championship are both scheduled for August, so there might be some travel then, but otherwise, it's sticking close to home for the Timbers once the calendar hits August. But as Savarese is fond of saying, the team is keeping to one match at a time and right now, their focus is on the Impact midweek.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Timbers Advance In U.S. Open Cup With Resounding Win Over Galaxy

And he's been doing a lot of this lately
Brian Fernandez is as good as advertised, having scored in his 5th match in a row
It seems like every season Portland Timbers supporters have the same debate over various honors for their team - what is more important? Each of the various championships comes with its own level of prestige: the Cascadia Cup gives the holder bragging rights over their fellow supporters from Cascadia, the Supporters' Shield honors regular season excellence for the team that earns the most points, MLS Cup is awarded to the playoff champion, who is generally regarded as the best team in MLS, while the U.S. Open Cup is given to the best American soccer club for the current calendar year over the various divisions. Yet, each title also has their drawbacks: the Cascadia Cup, while a great trophy, isn't put up with the other championships, the Supporters' Shield winner often struggles in the playoffs as it's rare to have them win MLS Cup as well, the MLS Cup winner is often the hottest team in October/November and not necessarily the best team throughout the year, while the U.S. Open Cup is often put down the priority list for most MLS clubs. While I want the Timbers to be competitive in whatever type of match they are playing, it's also unrealistic to expect them to play the same eleven each week between January and November, so rotation has to occur regularly. With a compacted schedule forthcoming, the Timbers did rotate in new pieces in their Round of 16 match hosting the Los Angeles Galaxy and came away with an impressive 4 to 0 victory to advance to the Quarterfinal round for the second consecutive season and the fourth overall in the MLS era.

Despite some various struggles in the tournament overall, the 4 goals scored is the third time in U.S. Cup History where the Timbers have scored at least 4 goals, and they accomplished this with a relatively strong choice of lineups. Timbers Coach Gio Savarese had to weigh the options after the Timbers defeated Seattle on June 12 up in Tacoma in their previous round action, but the Timbers face a 3 match in 8 day run in MLS league play with hosting Houston on June 22, followed up by a trip to Montreal on June 26 to then return to host FC Dallas on June 30. Things don't get any easier for Portland, either if you look into July as the Timbers play NYCFC in New York on July 7, return to Portland to host Colorado on July 13 and Orlando on July 18 before going up North again to play the Flounders on July 21, only to then host the Galaxy on July 27. That's 10 matches in 45 days, and now adding the Quarterfinal match on July 10 down in either San Jose or at LAFC, the compression and travel will test even the biggest depth for a side for an eleventh match. Granted, Portland has already dealt with a 12 match road trip traveling over 30,000 miles to start the 2019 season, so dealing with challenging circumstances has been part for the course for this bunch. Along the way, they have shown resolve, grit and resourcefulness through various matches, and this battle with an extremely young and inexperienced Galaxy side was no exception.

Unavailable for Houston, Seba was very good against LAG
Sebastian Blanco was the playmaker in this match, and he was solid in that role.
In his post match comments. Savarese indicated that several players lobbied to play in the Open Cup match, and perhaps that led into some of the lineup decisions to select the starting eleven. Steve Clark, so amazing in the Open Cup win in Tacoma, was selected to start in goal behind a defensive line of Jorge Moreira, Larrys Mabiala, Claude Dielna and Jorge Villafana. Of the foursome, each has appeared with the Timbers' first team, but Dielna has spent more time with Timbers 2 over the previous weeks after Dielna had awkward appearances for the Timbers back in March and has redeemed himself with good work recently. Savarese stayed with the 4 - 2 - 3 - 1 formation, putting Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes in as the defensive midfielders behind the attacking midfield trio of Sebastian Blanco, Jeremy Ebobisse and Tomas Conechny. Ebobisse has been used mostly as a striker early in the season, but with the acquisition of Brian Fernandez, Portland has employed Jeremy more as a supporting striker working with Fernandez. Fernandez tallied a brace in the last U.S. Open Cup match, so it wasn't a huge surprise to see him included, but with the inclusion of Dielna, Conechny and Clark, Portland was effectively using most of their regulars despite a league match 3 days later. What was interesting for me is to see what Conechny, who the team has raved about after practices, would show in a meaningful match playing alongside several regulars.

The Galaxy took a very different approach with a league match at FC Cincinnati on June 22, so they left most of their regular starters out of the match to have available for the weekend. Of the eleven starters, Galaxy Coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto only used one regular starter, defender Daniel Steres, and a few regular reserves in midfielders Perry Kitchen and Emmanuel Boateng, all making over 14 appearances in league play. The rest of the side was a mix of younger players, veterans that have fallen out of the rotation, and experienced players working back to fitness. Traditionally, Boateng has been a troublesome player for the Timbers to deal with, and if Ethan Zubak, Efrain Alvarez and Juninho could control the midfield for the Galaxy, they might be able to steal a win in Portland from a team that is still trying to get comfortable within their home grounds. For the first 25 minutes of play, this upstart Galaxy group was controlling the tempo and frustrating the Timbers. Part of this could have been Portland trying to find its rhythm with Blanco effectively being the playmaker of the offense, but the Timbers also spent a lot of time making ill advised or rushed passes in an attempt to move forward. For a club using most of their regular starters, it was really strange to see such an experienced side struggle with a younger, scrappier side so much. Los Angeles also seemed to be the early aggressor in terms of contact, and Center Official Victor Rivas appeared to be willing to reward their assertive play.

Has been improving so far this year
With Bill Tuiloma getting the night off, Larrys Mabiala was the leader of the D.
The match hit the 28th minute and the complexion completely changed with the Timbers earning a free kick on the left flank about 35 yards from goal. Conechny took the restart and dipped a cross towards the left post that Fernandez caught up with, and Brian unleashed a header towards the right post. With Galaxy goalkeeper Matt Lampson starting to react to the center in line with the shot, the ball actually struck Kitchen's boot and took a more acute angle towards goal as it spun over the goal line. With Portland taking the early lead off the own goal, the team spent the next 10 minutes peppering Lampson from all over the pitch, and the Galaxy defense was unable to completely deal with the onslaught. In the 34th minute with the Galaxy pressed forward, the Timbers cleared a ball to Blanco with just 2 Galaxy defenders back and Sebastian was able to put a through ball forward for Ebobisse in stride on goal. Jeremy settled the ball and put forth a chip shot over a charging Lampson that was headed for goal. While Galaxy defender Dave Romney was able to clear it temporarily, he didn't complete keep it away from Fernandez, who was lurking about and Brian captured the rebound to smash it home for a 2 to 0 lead. Two minutes later, Blanco decided to test Lampson from the left flank from distance off a drop pass, and the laser shot hit the back of the net with ease to extend the lead to 3 to 0. The Timbers had went from passive play to complete confidence in a matter of 10 minutes, and the Timbers were never really threatened afterwards.

Portland tried their best to extend the lead with Blanco being the main conduit for the shots on goal in the second half, while Ebobisse and Conechny had huge opportunities to add their names to the scoring sheet. Villafana found Ebobisse in the 40th minute off a cross that Jeremy put a strong header on, with only a Lampson fingertip save preventing the goal, while Moreira found Conechny off a break in the 74th minute off the break with a cross, but Tomas' shot was stopped by a Lampson save in traffic. It was Moreira that would add his name to the scorer's log in the 83rd minute when Fernandez put a cross from the left flank towards the right intended for Diego Valeri, who entered the match for Conechny as a substitute. Valeri, however, couldn't find the handle on the cross, but Moreira did and put it past Lampson for goal number 4. The Galaxy weren't able to get much going until very late, when unforced errors by Clark and Dielna gave Los Angeles a chance to tally a goal. However, Zubak skuffed a shot in the 85th minute in front of goal and Clark recovered for the save, while Clark deflected a Zubak shot moments later off Dielna's turnover. Unfortunately, Steve deflected the shot back to Alvarez on the left flank, but Efrain's rebound shot struck the right post and spun away to be cleared away by Dielna. Considering the Timbers defense had played so well for most of the match, it was a rather baffling sequence of events yet Portland remained unscathed and secured the clean sheet.
ridiculously awesome soccer grounds
Hard to believe this was just match number 2 this year here, but it's true.

The victory certainly gives the Timbers confidence going into the stretch of league matches, especially seeing how well Conechny and Paredes played in the midfield, and Tomas' service was actually very respectable. It made sense that Blanco played a full 90 in this match since he is ineligible for the Houston match due to accumulation suspension after getting a yellow card late in the loss to LAFC, but it was odd to see Valeri enter the match so late in a match that was already well in hand. With the youth of Paredes, Fernandez and Ebobisse, I'm expecting that they should be available for at least limited minutes against the Dynamo, but obviously, the plan was to rest Valeri to have him ready for Houston. Whether we see more rotation along the defensive line will be seen, but I was impressed with the cohesion between Mabiala and Dielna, and Moreira has regained some composure after a tough effort versus LAFC. It was even great to see Marco Farfan get some minutes late replacing Villafana for his first Timbers appearance in 2019, as I fully expect that Portland will need to dig deep over the weeks to get through this run unscathed. But none of that really mattered to the supporters or the Timbers players in the moment, as they could all celebrate their first official win at the newly refurbished park.

At least for one night, it showed the importance of the Open Cup to the Timbers, but I also feel that Savarese is playing the hotter hands right now. Fernandez is on a hot scoring streak and in form, and I fully expect the Timbers to ride this out, especially since he's often created goals from simply outworking opponents. Savarese will also need to manage the minutes of key players, especially with Andres Flores and Andy Polo out on international duty. While I think the team does want to win all the trophies it can, the more important goal right now is developing chemistry among the various players on the first team to ensure the club is prepared well for the long home stretch in August and September. MLS Cup still has the prestige of being labeled champions for the year, and the playoff structure MLS clings to hasn't been kind to most Supporters' Shield winners. Priorities may change from match to match, but building a solid foundation is always important, and the Timbers' result here showed that they are moving very well towards that goal. We'll see how well this group recovers in time for the Dynamo this coming weekend.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Timbers Home Opener Ends in Contentious 3 to 2 Loss to LAFC

It's bigger on the inside
My new vantage point from press row. It's going to take some getting used to.
The date of June 1, 2019 had been circled on many calendars for Timbers fans, not just because some certain person keeps asking what date it is on social media. You could certainly feel the anxiousness in the air around Providence Park as the Portland Timbers were preparing to host their home opener in 2019 MLS play with the Los Angeles Football Club - LAFC for short - paying a visit. Considering that Portland had already played 12 matches on the road, traveling over 25,000 miles and spending most of the 2019 calendar year playing away from familiar settings and a partisan crowd, you could sense the tension within the grounds hours before kickoff among the players and supporters. For the most part, the stadium passed the initial test well - the crowd noise was deafening, the stadium viewpoints were impressive, and the sights very memorable - but as with any grand opening, there were challenges as LAFC held on for a dramatic 3 to 2 victory in front of a new capacity crowd of 25,218.

It was hard to avoid the news of the stadium reopening as it was being covered world wide by various outlets, and the end results were very evident with the expanded East deck adding over 4,000 new seats, new jumbotrons on the South and West deck, a new playing surface, updated sound system and other decorative touches throughout the park. The visuals were indeed stunning from being able to see a visible Mount Hood or Mount St. Helen's in the distance from the new deck, and as the evening moved on, the night sky gave the fans quite a sight. The opening wasn't without various technical difficulties, however, as the sound system alternated between nothing and deafening for most of the match, social media reported varying issues with the concessions and the crowded concourses, and for the first time in the MLS era, the Timbers Army did not lead the singing of the anthem before the kick. Days before the opener, the 107ist announced new fan conduct rules that prohibited certain imagery from being displayed during the match in conjunction with MLS parameters that applies to all matches at the park, which led to plenty of supporter discord. Some supporters had to remove messages of support for the Iron Front upon entering the park, yet before the match had started, a group of fans were displaying a Trump 2020 flag in one of the sections of the park before the flag was removed. Tensions were still on alert hours after the match on the topic, and it will be interesting to see what happens over the coming weeks regarding this issue.

our tireless engine cog in action
Diego Chara was his very usual Chara-like self the whole match.
I was part of the stadium opening in 2001 for the Portland Beavers when the stadium ran out of hot dogs in the third inning, so there is precedent for home opener challenges. I don't say that to make light of what happened before the match, although it's not unexpected for new facilities to experience problems on their first run. For my opinion, I appreciate the upgrades but I would ask the stadium to turn down the volume on the public address system, as it was completely distracting when on top volume. I also understand the dynamic with soccer and politics over history, and many just want politics to stay out of sports. I admit I've struggled with that message before as I enjoy sports and would prefer the drama & dramatics be kept off the field of play, but sometimes the messages are beyond just the world of sports and that desire is part of my privilege as a white male in society. I respect the league for doing their best to make the fan experience more inclusive with their Soccer For All campaign, but the issue of censoring specific messages as political is a very slippery slope that doesn't have any easy answers. Soccer is a game that should embrace all parts of society, but there is no place in our society for groups that promote messages of hate or support violence against others, simply because of their race, gender, religion, creed, belief system or some other arbitrary factor. Messages that drive wedges and fuel hate should never be welcomed in any environment. I'm proud that the 107ist is supporting human rights causes, especially during Pride Month, and will support them as they continue to share this important message.

Within the context of opening the refurbished stadium and the traffic challenges brought on by the Starlight Parade happening on the same night in downtown Portland, it would have been easy to overlook the matchup between LAFC and Portland, two clubs that are fast developing a very contentious rivalry. LAFC dismantled the Timbers earlier this year in game 2 of the 12 game road string, and tensions had boiled over in several matches last year during LAFC's inaugural season, but Bob Bradley's crew are setting the pace so far in 2019 with an undefeated home record so far in 8 matches and earning points from 7 of 8 matches away from home. LAFC has a plus 26 goal differential - only Philadelphia has a double digit goal differential so far - which indicates a strong offense, but LAFC is also second to last on goals allowed with 13 conceded, so they have a solid companion defense as well. Carlos Vela makes the team run, but this group has Christian Ramirez, Diego Rossi, Adama Diomande, Latif Blessing and Mark-Anthony Kaye who provide scoring and passing support, so the Timbers were going to have their hands full in all aspects. Brian Fernandez has been a wonderful addition to the Timbers for his offensive expertise, but the key in this match would be how well Diego Chara and Cristian Paredes, the duo selected for defensive midfield duty among the starters, would patrol the middle and hold the tempo.

Paredes tallies the 1st goal of the new Providence Park
Paredes add to MLS Timbers history as 1st goal scorer in updated park
Timbers Coach Gio Savarese decided to roll out the familiar 4 - 2 - 3 - 1 attack with Fernandez as the lone striker with Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Andy Polo as the supporting attacking midfielders. With Paredes and Chara in the middle, Savarese used Jorge Moreira, Larrys Mabiala, Bill Tuiloma and Jorge Villafana as the defensive line in front of goalkeeper Jeff Attinella. Moreira and Villafana have been rather adept at moving forward to support the offense, but they would be tested in this matchup with the three LAFC attackers in Vela, Rossi and Ramirez. After playing in different stadiums with various surfaces, it would be interesting to see how well the Timbers would adapt to the new Cool Turf surface at Providence Park, designed to keep field temperatures down yet still be a fast surface. With Portland having an exceptional record in home openers and the myriad of emotions going on before the home opener, it would be paramount for the team not to make any mistakes and keep their emotions and wits in check throughout the match. Unfortunately for the Timbers, this message really didn't hit home until later in the affair.

Portland mistakes effectively created the three goals that LAFC tallied on the night, and their hundred of traveling supporters enjoyed every moment of it bellowing songs as loudly as the Timbers Army for most of the night. Vela tallied his 16th goal of 2019 in probably the easiest fashion of the year in the 6th minute when Attinella passed a goal kick directly to him and Vela slotted the ball past him before he or the defense could recover. Attinella was intending to put the ball in play to Villafana, but the pass went directly to Vela instead as a rather egregious unforced error. Rossi tallied his eighth goal of 2019 in the 34th minute when Vela found LAFC fullback Tristan Blackmon wide right, and Blackmon put a cross into the box intended for Rossi to the spot. Moreira was slow to react to the play and was steps behind Rossi when the ball arrived, and Attinella had no chance to stop the shot into goal. This pattern was pretty much the story for the Timbers in the first 45 minutes, as Portland really was unable to find any cohesion on either side of the ball. Of the shots created, Mabiala's header from a Valeri corner kick in the 8th minute was the only credible effort on target, and Larrys pulled the shot wide right. Defensively, the Timbers left several marks open at key moments, but LAFC were unable to take more advantage more often. The Timbers' midfield tried their best to set up some tempo for the group, but with the litany of unforced errors on passing or slow reaction, the Timbers just looked out of sorts.

He had other issues on the match though
Jeff Attinella made several good saves, but had a few horrible gaffes.
Whatever halftime message Savarese gave his team worked because Portland came out with passion and fire, and Paredes was the beneficiary in scoring the first Timbers goal in the new park right after the break. Portland surrounded the LAFC goal, and Blanco found Fernandez in the box with a cross, but LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller was able to deflect the shot away. However, his rebound fell to the feet of Parades, who tapped it in for goal to pull the Timbers back to a 2 to 1 deficit. The Timbers continued to swarm about, but LAFC extended the lead in the 56th minute when the defense failed to mark Blessing on the right flank. As LAFC swarmed to the left and peppered Attinella with attempted shots, LAFC defender Jordan Harvey put a cross from left to right to an unmarked Blessing in the box, and he calmly tapped the ball into the net for his second goal of 2019. Portland continued to pressure as Valeri, Blanco and Fernandez all had quality chances on target over the following minutes, but the match complexion didn't change until Savarese brought on Jeremy Ebobisse to replace Paredes and give the Timbers two attacking forwards. The Ebobisee - Fernandez combination paid dividends in the 84th minute after Villafana found Jeremy with a cross from left to right, and Ebobisse put a header in the area of Fernandez while in the box. Brian executed an exceptional bicycle kick past Miller to push the score to 3 to 2, but the Timbers were unable to do anything more score wise to gain any points.

After a first half where the team seemed very tentative and unsure of their approach, the Timbers showed more determination and tenacity in the second half as they pressured LAFC from all quadrants, trusting that Mabiala and Tuiloma could handle the LAFC counter. When Tuiloma left in the 58th minute due to a head injury, Julio Cascante came on board and he held up well to the challenges late. To their credit, LAFC used every technique in the book to run down the clock, including several time wasting counters. Vela is an absolute handful, though, and the Timbers' defense really struggled to account for his whereabouts most of the night. While much was made in support of Center Official Robert Sibiga's work on the night in an emotionally charged atmosphere, I felt that Sibiga wasn't as consistent in many of his calls when it came to contact and fouls. As much as the Timbers didn't adjust to the physical, frenetic approach that LAFC brought to the table, LAFC also did an exceptional job of accentuating and exaggerating contact leading to many calls. The tensions between the teams boiled over in stoppage time when Cascante, Fernandez and Diomande, brought on as a late substitute, tangled in front of the LAFC bench and the teams had to be separated. Even Bradley and Savarese had a rather animated post-match discussion for several minutes where some of the assistants had to be separated.

He's spectacular. Seriously.
Brian Fernandez is as good as advertised. His 84th minute goal was awesome.
In all of the context of everything, however, the match itself was a tale of two halves and the Timbers showed they could indeed hang with LAFC, who is easily the quality of MLS right now. I heard many people indicate that Portland needs time to adjust to the home conditions, but I also feel that the team needed to control their emotions slightly better. It appeared that the team was really not communicating with each other on the pitch, and the lack of leadership that plagued the team early in the season arose again. While I appreciate that Valeri, Blanco and Fernandez are doing a good job of leading the offense, I am openly wondering who is the leader of the defense. I would think Mabiala is the logical candidate because of his experience and expertise, but I didn't see anybody really directing or organizing the defensive line with any cohesion. Attinella has been very good for several seasons as well, but the unforced errors in distribution are a troubling trend. Granted, the issues are indeed correctable with more work on the training pitch, but Portland will need to shore them up before matches resume next week. The Timbers open up U.S. Open Cup play on June 12 in Tacoma, WA when they battle the Seattle Sounders in the 4th round of the tournament before league play resumes on June 22nd when the Houston Dynamo visit Providence Park to face the Timbers.