TIMBERS' CHEMISTRY FACES LAFC LITMUS TEST
The Portland Timbers will reach the midpoint of their 34-game MLS schedule on Sunday.
They'll enter that match at Los Angeles FC on an unbeaten run of 11 MLS games and 13 in all competitions, a stretch that has them with the third-best points-per-game number in the Western Conference.
The 3 p.m. match from Banc of California Stadium lines up as the biggest test to date for these Timbers. The expansion club in downtown LA is starting to look like a championship threat.
LAFC averages a league-best 2.27 goals per game and is welcoming five impactful players back from either the World Cup or the injury list. Add in Portuguese midfielder Andre Horta, who will be eligible this week to make his MLS debut, and this is a club loaded with attacking talent.
Oh, and striker Adama Diomande has nine goals and two assists in his first seven MLS games.
During its current run, the Timbers have earned 19 of their 27 points against opponents in the lower third of the standings.
And Portland has been living on the edge. Seven of the eight wins have come by a single goal.
The ability to win close games is vital to winning trophies. The fight and competitive togetherness the Timbers have demonstrated is to be lauded.
It is also about to be tested.
• It might lack the sizzle of D.C. United adding Wayne Rooney or Seattle signing star Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz, but the Timbers' anticipated acquisition of 20-year-old Tomas Conechny might have a bigger long-term impact than many of the moves during the summer transfer window.
An attacker who has played for Argentina at two youth World Cups, Conechny could be groomed to take up Diego Valeri's role down the road. At 32, Valeri shows no sign he will be hanging up his shoes anytime soon (Valeri has assisted on five consecutive Timbers goals to become only the 11th player in MLS history, and the only active player, with more than 60 goals and 60 assists). But to add a young player who can learn from fellow Argentines Valeri and Sebastian Blanco is a forward-thinking move.
How soon Conechny contributes will depend on how quickly he adjusts to Portland, on and off the field.
Samuel Armenteros is an example of that. After scoring both goals in Saturday's 2-1 win over San Jose, Armenteros said feeling settled in Portland six months after joining the Timbers has helped him score six goals over his last eight games.
"I'm a human being. For people just watching it, I guess (it seems like you) just kick the ball," he said. "But there is much going on in a mind when you're moving. Family. Friends. Searching for a house. Everything around it. When that all settled in, I started feeling better and better."
The 4-0 win over the Utah Royals on Friday felt cathartic for Portland's National Women's Soccer League team.
Tobin Heath scored a goal 68 seconds into her return from injury. Ana Crnogorcevic scored at home for the first time. Hayley Raso seems to be finding her fitness and form.
With those three on the attack, the Thorns had a Utah team that had allowed only 11 goals in its first 14 games scrambling throughout the first half. After scoring only once in dropping points against Sky Blue and Seattle the previous week, the four-goal night came at a good time.
Equally significant on Friday was the partnership in the center of the defense.
Emily Menges and Emily Sonnett played an entire game together for the first time this season. With goalkeeper Adrianna Franch behind them, it was a reunion of the triangle that proved so consistent in the team's championship run of 2017.
"(Sonnett and Menges) playing together, they just run the back line. They were absolutely huge for us against three of the best forwards in the country, if not world," the Thorns' Lindsey Horan said after a dominant performance that included her seventh goal of the season and in which she set up two others. Having the Emilies in the middle of the back line is "a comfort in some sort of way," Horan said. "Every game you want them back there and you want to know you have that cover."
• Ellie Carpenter has embraced the challenges since the 18-year-old Australian arrived in Portland two months ago. In the past two games, she has faced one-on-one battles with Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press.
"I love coming up against world-class strikers like Press," Carpenter said. "It's good for me to build as a player. I love competing and battling against a player like that."
The Thorns continue a key stretch when they play host to the Houston Dash at 8 p.m. Sunday. The win over Utah allowed Portland to stay within three points of second-place Seattle. The Thorns are in fifth place, two points back of Chicago and Orlando and two points ahead of Utah in a tight chase for three playoff spots behind runaway NWSL leader North Carolina.
Timbers 2 have lost four USL matches in a row. The best news out of Sunday's 4-2 loss to Fresno FC was that defender Roy Miller started and played an hour. Recovering from a torn Achilles at the end of last season, Miller is ahead of any reasonable schedule for a 33-year-old.
T2 are at Merlo Field at 7 p.m. Saturday against Swope Park Rangers, the USL affiliate of Sporting Kansas City.