Timbers lead, for now, and maybe for longer
The Portland Timbers sit atop the MLS Western Conference. Thanks to an impressively gutty win on Saturday over New York City FC at Yankee Stadium, they finished last weekend one point ahead of second-place Seattle and three ahead of third-place Vancouver.
The catch is Portland has played three more games than Vancouver and one more than Seattle. Vancouver will play twice before the Timbers next game. So by the time Portland takes the field at Real Salt Lake at 6:30 p.m. PT Saturday, the Timbers (12-9-8) might not be looking down on their rivals.
Coach Caleb Porter makes the argument that Portland's 44 points in the bank are more valuable than potential points for other teams.
The next six weeks will determine if he is right.
But there are good reasons to be bullish on Portland's chances to finish high in the conference.
One is the current run of form. With Diego Valeri becoming only the fourth player in the 21 seasons of MLS to score a goal in seven consecutive games, the Timbers have five wins, one loss and two draws over their last eight games and have climbed from below the playoff line to the top of the standings.
Along with Valeri's greatness, the arrival of central defender Larrys Mabiala cannot be overlooked. The absence of Liam Ridgewell has been a real problem for Portland. But the Timbers are 4-2-2 in games Mabiala has started. One loss was in Mabiala's debut, when a makeshift Timbers lineup lost at home to RSL. The other was to a Toronto team that is running away with the Supporters' Shield.
Not to be overlooked is goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, who has grabbed hold of that job with Jake Gleeson injured. Two of the Timbers' four shutout wins have come with Attinella in goal, and in each he made a difficult reaction save to preserve a one-goal lead.
The schedule could be the Timbers' friend down the stretch, too. Consider:
The Timbers have no more two-game weeks. Their rivals do.
Including this week, Vancouver will twice play three games in eight days. Seattle has one such stretch remaining, and the Sounders and Whitecaps each have one more East Coast trip.
Another plus is that after the Sept. 16 game at Real Salt Lake, Portland will play three of its final four matches at home, where the Timbers are 8-2-4.
Lastly, those teams chasing the Timbers will be battling one another for points.
Portland has only one match remaining against a team currently in playoff position: Vancouver's visit to finish the regular season.
Seattle must play FC Dallas twice and Vancouver once.
Five of Vancouver's remaining eight games are against teams in playoff position. In addition to a game at Seattle, Vancouver has to visit Sporting Kansas City. And, the Whitecaps will play on the road against the New York Red Bulls and play a home match against Columbus, both solidly in the Eastern Conference playoff mix.
The Timbers don't have it made — or even have it easy. But they have a path that should at least lead to a playoff berth, and that gives them a shot at a favorable playoff seed.
• The Portland Thorns will play host to a National Women's Soccer League semifinal on Oct. 7.
With two matches remaining in their regular season, the Thorns will finish no worse than second place. That was ensured on Sunday with a 1-0 win at Boston.
It was the fourth win in a row for the Thorns and the eighth in their last nine matches.
That it came courtesy of a Christine Sinclair goal is hardly a surprise. The former Portland Pilot has been a driving force during the Thorns' surge. Her team-leading eighth goal of the season also moved her to the top of the club's all-time scoring list. Sinclair's 31 goals for the Thorns leads Allie Long by one.
The win at Boston was different from many in the recent run. The Breakers, at the bottom of the NWSL standings, took 17 shots to five for the Thorns and had 59 percent of possession.
But Sinclair — as the best goal-scorers do — made one good look count.
The Thorns' 13 wins are their most in one season (though this is only the second time in five seasons NWSL teams have played 24 games). Last season, Portland won 12 of 20 games on its way to first place.
Repeating as regular-season champions is still possible, though first-place North Carolina has three games left to add to its point total.
Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna Franch tied the league record with her 10th shutout of the season in the win at Boston, making four saves.
The Portland defense figures to be challenged on Sept. 23, when the Thorns visit top-scoring Orlando. Ex-Thorn Alex Morgan has scored nine times in 11 appearances this season.
First comes a break for international matches, though. Thorns Lindsey Horan, Long and Tobin Heath are among 22 players called to the national team for a pair of friendlies against New Zealand. Heath has not played all season because of a back strain, but is off the injury list and expected to be available to play in the playoffs.
• Emily Menges, who had started the previous 35 Thorns games at center back, missed Sunday's match. Her brother, Bobby, died on Friday after battling cancer off and on from age 5. Bobby Menges was a junior at Duke.
• Tickets for the Oct. 7 semifinal match will be on sale starting at noon on Sept. 18.
• This year's NWSL championship match is Oct. 14 in Orlando.
Wiese still on court
Former Oregon State guard Sydney Wiese is in the WNBA semifinals as a rookie with the Los Angeles Sparks.
Wiese has averaged 7.9 minutes, 2.3 points and 0.3 assists per game, hitting 38.3 percent from the field and 40.0 percent on 3-pointers.
The No. 2-seeded Sparks will take on the Phoenix Mercury in a best-of-five series that begin tonight at Los Angeles.
— Paul Danzer