TIMBERS LEARN TO TOUGH IT OUT
Seven seasons into the MLS experience, fans of the Portland Timbers should know enough to expect a 34-match roller-coaster ride.
Still, it is hard to remember a week that featured more of an emotional swing for the club and its supporters than the last one.
The Timbers turned in one of their biggest duds as a MLS club last Wednesday. The 4-1 home loss to Real Salt Lake was dismal on many levels — particularly the emotional implosion.
So of course the Timbers, without enough men on MLS contracts to fill out the 18-player game sheet, then went to British Columbia and beat the Whitecaps 2-1 on Sunday.
Of course rookie Jeremy Ebobisse — in the game only because of Fanendo Adi's tantrum and Darren Mattocks' absence for the Gold Cup — scored 14 minutes into his first start and delivered a back-heel assist on the second goal.
At the start of preseason, coach Caleb Porter said his priority was to be three players deep at every field position. While such depth is next to impossible to secure in MLS, the lineup at Vancouver included the third-choice forward and third options at left back, central defender and in the midfield.
Such is the nature of the sport that a hardworking, together 11 players can be difficult to beat. But even Porter seemed to marvel at how well his patchwork lineup executed.
"For our guys to come on the road and to play as well as they did with the guys that we had — seven, eight starters out and different guys in and really no training chemistry, for them to do that says a lot about the character of the team," Porter said.
That character, or at least the focus and composure, was in question on Wednesday after Adi chest-bumped Kyle Beckerman to the turf in a fit of frustration that sealed Portland's fate that night.
Sunday's win was the Timbers' first since April without captain Liam Ridgewell in the lineup. The Timbers are 4-3-2 in the nine matches Ridgewell has played in this season. In the 13 games he's missed completely, Portland is 4-5-4.
The forced fluctuations of the back four has been a factor in those numbers, but the way things unraveled in the loss to Salt Lake suggested a need for more on-field leadership.
While calling Adi's actions out of character, Porter spoke after the RSL match about the need for his players to rein in emotions.
"With the Adi situation, maybe to some extent we need to as a team and with the leaders on this team make sure guys are calm and don't make that decision," Porter said.
Without Ridgewell, Portland's most experienced players are not big talkers, as defender Zarek Valentin noted.
"If you look at Darlington (Nagbe) and (Diego) Chara and Diego (Valeri), these guys aren't going to give you filibusters and talk your ear off," Valentin said. "But they're guys that in tough moments you look to and get them the ball. And then there's talkative Tommys like me that can try to help push the team through some moments.
"That balance is what carries a team through. In tough moments like this, we need even more people to try to step up and put themselves even in uncomfortable situations so that we can move forward and progress as a team."
Ridgewell's return from a persistent quad injury is not thought to be imminent. It is too soon to know, but perhaps new center back Larrys Mabiala will bring another strong voice to the field. The RSL and Vancouver matches were his first two since joining the club.
The most encouraging sign on Sunday? That a team with every reason to feel sorry for itself — four players on international duty, two suspended and five out with injuries — didn't flinch. Maybe it was a not-much-to-lose deal. Maybe it was the surprise factor as the Whitecaps tried to figure out Ebobisse.
Maybe it was just Portland's day. Lawrence Olum did clear a ball from the goal mouth and goalkeeper Jake Gleeson made a couple big reaction saves.
The Timbers probably felt they were due a bounce or two. Last week's tough breaks were ankle injuries to outside backs Marco Farfan (in training) and Chance Myers (44 minutes into his Timbers debut).
Given the Timbers' lack of recent good fortune, Sunday's win was worth more than the three points that kept them four points above the playoff line.
"It breaks that (winless) cycle. That's important," Porter said. "You don't want that cycle to continue. The more it builds, the more pressure comes and it makes it more and more difficult."
Things won't immediately get easier for the Timbers. They head to Houston on Saturday, where the Dynamo are 8-0-2 this season.
Throw in the Texas summer weather, and the Timbers figure to be up against it again.
Which is fine with Valentin, who predicted better things at Vancouver after the loss to RSL.
"You learn a lot about yourself in moments that aren't easy," Valentin said. "You know, it's really easy if you're Chicago and you win 10 games in a row and everyone's laughing and you're doing cartwheels. But that's not going to really test a team in terms of their mentality and their heart. I think these moments will test us. And I promise you this team is going to come out fighting and we're going to move forward."
Sebastian Blanco has four goals and five assists this season. Not numbers that will blow you away, but the designated player has scored in two of the last three games, has been forced into shifting roles, and is tied for second on the team in assists.
• Rookie Jeremy Ebobisse is the 13th Timbers player to score a goal this season, most in the league.
• Don't expect Ebobisse's debut to displace the pecking order at forward. Porter was a bit understated about his play at Vancouver: "That's exciting for him and for the club moving forward to know we have a young horse in the stable that is going to continue to get better, and he showed a lot of confidence today."
• Roy Miller has been solid as a center back who was signed to primarily provide depth at that position. But his experience at left back was a significant bonus as demonstrated on Sunday, when the injuries to Vytas, Marco Farfan and Chance Myers left Miller as the only option.
• Wednesday's Gold Cup championship match will feature Timbers Darlington Nagbe (U.S.) and Darren Mattocks and Alvas Powell (both Jamaica). It would be a quick turnaround for any of them to play for the Timbers on Saturday at Houston, but David Guzman should be available now that Costa Rica's Gold Cup run is over.
• Playing seven days after his 18th birthday, defender Harold Hanson was the youngest player to appear for the Timbers in a MLS match. Farfan was the youngest (18 years, 120 days) when he made his professional debut at Los Angeles this season. Hanson came on in the 88th minute of the match in Vancouver for Dairon Asprilla. Hanson and Augustine Williams were signed from Timbers 2 to short-term contracts because of the Timbers' extreme roster hardship.