BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/But six remaining home matches, starting Sunday against Galaxy, are keys to Portland's fate

It is safe to say that the Timbers will return to Providence Park on Sunday in a much better frame of mind than when they left the stadium.

Four points from road games at Vancouver and Houston have kept Portland above the playoff line with the MLS home stretch looming.

The Timbers have 11 games remaining, fewer than most of the other teams in the bunched- up Western Conference.TIMBERS PREVIEW

Their six remaining home matches — three of them over the next 17 days beginning on Sunday — will be critical to their playoff hopes.

It starts with a visit from the struggling Los Angeles Galaxy, who last week brought in veteran MLS coach Sigi Schmid to try to turn things around. The Galaxy (6-10-5, 23 points) are winless in six consecutive matches — five losses and Saturday's scoreless draw with Seattle.

After a road match against MLS-leading Toronto on Aug. 12, the Timbers will be home Aug. 18 against the Red Bulls and Aug. 23 against Colorado.

The Timbers should have most of their mainstays back for the key stretch. 

In the most recent match, the Timbers were the first visiting this season not to fall behind at Houston. Portland held 1-0 and 2-1 leads in a 2-2 draw in hot, sticky Texas weather.

That match saw the return of Darlington Nagbe and David Guzman from Gold Cup play, meaning coach Caleb Porter was able to start his first-choice front six players (Fanendo Adi at forward, Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri and Nagbe in the attacking midfield, and Guzman and Diego Chara in holding midfield spots).

The back four continues to miss team captain Liam Ridgewell. In the matches at Vancouver and Houston, newest Timber Larrys Mabiala teamed with Lawence Olum in the middle. Roy Miller started his second consecutive match at left back, and right back Zarek Valentin at right back made his fourth consecutive start.

Porter doesn't think the Timbers would be above the playoff line without Miller and Olum — veterans signed in the preseason.

Olum was acquired in a trade for depth after Gbenga Arokoyo suffered his season-ending injury in preseason. Miller was signed to back up Ridgewell as the left-side center back and to provide depth at left back. As a bonus, Miller is an MLS veteran who could help fellow Costa Rican Guzman make the move to America and MLS.

"He's been everything we thought he'd be. … really powerful in the locker room," Porter says of Miller.

"If we didn't have those two guys it would have been a similar story, I think, to last year where we're behind (the playoff line).

"We're still not where we need to be. We've obviously had injuries, but we've hung in because of guys like Roy Miller."

Vytas, who has not played in the last three matches because of a quad injury, was on the bench as an available substitute at Houston. Also in uniform at Houston was Alvas Powell, who played almost every minute of the Gold Cup for Jamaica. Valentin has been solid, and he assisted on Valeri's goal at Houston — his third assist this year, all to Valeri — so Powell may still be No. 2 on the depth chart at right back (but at least it's a real depth chart again).

Darren Mattocks, who had a strong Gold Cup for Jamaica, was not in uniform at Houston. He played the semifinal and final of the Gold Cup despite an undisclosed upper-body injury.

Valeri said he was pleased with the Timbers' performance at Houston but disappointed it was not a win. Porter liked that response.

"We played in a really good way and our mentality was extremely good in difficult conditions," Porter says. "The way we played with the ball and kept the ball was excellent.

"That is why the team is disappointed. When you draw a game and you don't play well, then you can kind of take that and put it in the bank and move on. I think the guys are disappointed because they know the three points were there for the taking based on our their performance."

  • Notable performances for the Timbers at Houston included:

    • Sebastian Blanco scoring his fifth goal of the season.

    The designated player had three goals and two assists in five July matches and appears to be settling into MLS. In that stretch, he played on the left wing when not forced to cover for missing central midfielders. At the start of the season, Porter said his ideal choice was to start Darlington Nagbe on the left wing, but when Nagbe returned to the team at Houston he lined up on the right, allowing Blanco to stay on the left.

    • Nagbe being tremendous

    Playing his fourth match in 10 days (and in stifling heat), Nagbe played 75 minutes, completed 39 of 43 passes, dribbled and passed out of pressure as usual, and ignited the first goal with a quick forward charge from the midfield stripe to near the top of the 18-yard box.

    • Valeri being Valeri

    He used a clever touch to set himself up for the shot on goal that put Portland up 1-0 at Houston — vintage Valeri. He sometimes makes the special look so routine. With his goal and assist at Houston, the 31-year-old leads the Timbers with 11 goals and eight assists this season (which means he's contributed to almost half of the team's 39 goals). Also: Valeri is the first Timbers player across all eras (back to 1975 and the NASL) to score more than 10 goals in three consecutive seasons. He has 48 goals and 50 assists in 137 regular-season games since joining the Timbers in 2013. He is the only player ranked among the MLS top 10 in goals and assists this season. And, his 50 assists since 2013 is the most by any MLS player over that span.

    • Poor goalkeeper; wow goalkeeper

    Jake Gleeson flubbed dealing with a cross, and the result was Houston's first goal. But Gleeson also robbed Houston's Mauro Manotas by reacting to get a hand on a shot from six yards away, demonstrating the reflexes that won him the starting job a year ago.

    • That disallowed goal

    Fanendo Adi thought he had put Portland up 3-1 with a goal early in the second half. But referee Jose Carlos Rivera consulted with his assistant referee after the goal and correctly ruled that Adi was in an offside position early in the play and in the process impacted the opportunity of Houston defender Leonardo to get to Diego Chara, who broke toward the goal.

    The officials got the call right.

    • Had that play happened this week …

    The officials likely would have had more help because video assisted refereeing will debut in MLS.

    The new system will include an official in the press box who can review certain decisions and recommend the referee look at a video replay of the incident.

    Incidents that can be reviewed are goals, penalty kick decisions, straight red cards and mistaken identity (the wrong player carded, for example).

    Foul calls cannot be reviewed.

    For example, replays showed Diego Chara did not commit a foul on the call Houston converted into the tying goal with a well-executed free kick, but if every foul could be reviewed, MLS matches would start to feel like the fourth quarter of NBA games, and that would just be wrong.

    And, in the new MLS system, coaches cannot ask for a play to be reviewed.

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