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ON SOCCER/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/MLS Portland closes in on Western Conference postseason berth

COURTESY: SAM ORTEGA/PORTLAND TIMBERS 2 - Coach Cameron Knowles watches Portland Timbers 2 play in a recent United Soccer League game.The final 2018 home game for Portland Timbers 2 was a night of missed opportunities. T2 created multiple scoring chances, but lost to Reno 1868, 2-0, on Oct. 3 at Merlo Field.

The loss ended any chance Portland could open the United Soccer League playoffs at home. T2 will be on the road for a Western Conference quarterfinal the weekend of Oct. 20-21.

But just making the playoffs is a big step forward for a club that in 2017 won only three of 32 games.

They've done it in entertaining style, too. T2's 57 goals through 33 matches are the seventh most in the 33-team league. Their 52 goals conceded are the 11th most. Given the constant rotation of lineups — with MLS Timbers players moving in and out of the T2 lineup — and T2's purpose of developing players for MLS, that's not bad.

One frustration for Cameron Knowles, who this season moved from an assistant coaching role with the Timbers into the head coaching job for T2, is that his team has at times conceded goals too easily.

That was the case against Reno, which produced its two scores on three shots on goal.

Against Reno, when the visitors were able to gain possession in the attacking half, T2 was rattled by the pressure.

Playing in a competitive league will teach young players how to deal with that. The more significant lessons, perhaps, are patience and perseverance.

When the Timbers loan one of their players to T2 — for rehab, conditioning or needed game minutes — it takes a spot from a T2 regular.

"I can't imagine sitting in their shoes and going through that. That speaks to their character and the quality of the individuals we have within the team to be able to get on with it," Knowles says. "And what we've tried to communicate is: Just be ready, because your chance will come. Thirty-six players have appeared for T2 this season. Mainstays have included 24-year-old Jamaican midfielder Andre Lewis (30 games), 21-year-old Costa Rican midfielder/forward Marvin Loria (29 games), 24-year-old Venezuelan Renzo Zambrano (30 games), 26-year-old Gambian defender Modou Jadama (25 games), 20-year-old American defender Lamar Batista (22 games) and 22-year-old forward Foster Langsdorf (28 games). 

For Knowles, this is his first head coaching chance. He jokes that the biggest surprise is he hasn't been kicked out of a game and calls running T2 "an incredible growth opportunity."

The biggest difference when calling the shots? One is simply staying on top of every aspect of the operation, including communicating with medical and sports science personnel.

After six seasons with a specific role as an assistant coach for the Timbers, Knowles says "every day's kind of new."

• Langsdorf's 14 goals are tied for 10th in the USL, though at one point he was pushing for the lead. His production caught the eye of Timbers fans, who have watched their forward production decline since Fanendo Adi was traded away.

A rookie who excelled at Stanford, where he was part of three consecutive national titles, Langsdorf knows he has plenty of work to do. And his desire to work might be catching up with him as he approaches the end of his first pro season — which is at least six months longer than the three-month college season. On Aug. 22, the Timbers homegrown player scored in his third consecutive match to close in on the USL lead. In six games since, he has one assist and zero goals.

"The No. 1 thing is not giving up," Langsdorf says. "But then again, sometimes maybe it is (better) taking a step back, because when I don't feel like I'm playing my best I want to constantly train more and more. But when you're doing that, you're putting yourself in a little bit of a hole physically."

Langsdorf is adjusting to playing as a lone striker.

"In college, I played a 4-4-2 system where we were pressing high and being very direct and the forwards were running the channels," he said. "In this club and at this level, that doesn't necessarily work, because if you press so high the other teams are generally so good on the ball that they can just pass it around you, so you have to be a little bit more intelligent in how you're going to press them. That's something I'm still learning, how to play the cat-and-mouse game with the defense."

A midfielder in his days with the Timbers Academy youth program, and in his first two seasons at Stanford, Langdorf's aggressive style and nose for the goal became evident after Jordan Morris left Stanford to join the Seattle Sounders. He left with a Pac-12 record 37 career goals — 29 over his junior and senior seasons.

Langsdorf's first year as a pro is only his third as a full-time forward.

"I really feel like I'm improving — I have to keep reminding myself of that at times," he says. 

Passing is one skill he knows needs work.

"My passing accuracy is not the best. That's an area of improvement I need to focus on in the offseason," Langsdorf says. "But I want to get it right heading into the playoffs. I want to make sure we're peaking."

Timbers close in on playoffs

The Timbers need two points from their final two matches to clinch a playoff spot, though after Saturday's encouraging 4-1 win at Real Salt Lake, they will be shooting for more.

Portland (14-9-9, 51 points) is fourth after Sebastian Blanco delivered goals three minutes apart to separate the Timbers from RSL.

The win kept Portland two points back of Sporting Kansas City and Los Angeles FC, which are tied for second. Both have three games remaining while the Timbers have two games left.

Fifth-place Seattle was four points back of Portland, but had four games remaining entering a Monday home match against Houston. Real Salt Lake is sixth, a tenuous position following the loss to the Timbers.

Blanco has nine goals and 10 assists and continues to perform as Portland's most important player. His go-ahead goal was produced with hustle, smarts and skill. He was first to react to a clearing header, burst past a defender and placed a shot off the inside of the goalpost.

It was the kind of play that can tip a season in the right direction. Portland badly needed the win, in part because it had been more than three months since the Timbers had produced a road victory.

The win also was significant because it could have gone the other way after RSL tied the score in the 56th minute. But Portland found the drive and the composure to get the needed result.

That Jeremy Ebobisse and Lucas Melano scored goals cannot hurt the group's confidence, either.

• The Timbers have next weekend off before their final regular-season home game on Oct. 21, also against Real Salt Lake.

• Coach Gio Savarese deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation at RSL. It was the first time he has started a match in that formation since the second game of the season — and the first time with Diego Chara as one of the holding midfielders. Portland looked quite comfortable. But Chara (suspension for yellow card accumulation) cannot play in the home match against RSL, so it would not surprise to see another formation shift.

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