Timbers' awakening lands first season win
Moments, soccer folks like to say, change games.
That was the case for the Portland Timbers on Saturday and in their first victory of the MLS season.
Might it have been a season-changing moment when defender Larrys Mabiala scored to give the Timbers a 1-0 lead at Columbus?
Scoring first for the first time all season, it was as if Portland experienced a complete mind-set shift.
As soon as Mabiala put away a Diego Valeri free kick, it was as if the Timbers awoke from a long slumber.
Scoring first is important, Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese says, "because now you feel empowered, you feel what you're doing is working."
Suddenly, Portland was quicker to the ball. Players were moving without the ball — which produced the second goal eight minutes after the first.
On Jeremy Ebobisse's goal, the Timbers striker dropped back to receive a pass outside the penalty area before sending it wide to Sebastian Blanco. The key to the space Ebobisse found to score was a diagonal run through the box by right-side midfielder Andres Flores. Central midfielder Cristhian Paredes made a run to the far post.
That kind of movement had been largely absent from Portland's attack. Too often this season, Ebobisse has been the lone Timber inside the 18-yard box.
Ebobisse, like most of his teammates, has been inconsistent this season. He leads the team with three goals, but could have had three on Saturday alone with slightly better quality in the box.
Still, as the Timbers and their fans wait for the promised addition of a Designated Player attacker, Ebobisse has scored with all three shots he has put on frame this season.
I wonder what Caleb Porter thought of Ebobisse's performance. Porter was involved in the decision to trade up to select Ebobisse with the No. 4 pick in the 2017 draft.
We know what Porter, coaching against the Timbers for the first time, saw as the difference on Saturday.
"I thought their two best players on the day were their central defenders, Mabiala and (Bill) Tuiloma. They headed a lot of stuff out, they cut a lot of crosses out," Porter said. "I always say the game comes down to the boxes, and I thought they were better in the boxes today."
In addition to scoring the first goal with a smart header, Mabiala played his best match of the season on defense. Ditto for Tuiloma as Portland handled all 28 crosses the Crew delivered. From open play, corner kicks and free kicks, the Timbers were, with only a couple exceptions, first to every ball flying into the 18-yard box.
Mabiala had been surprisingly shaky at times early in this season. Perhaps that is a result of getting used to new back line partners Jorge Moreira on the right and Tuiloma or Julio Cascante to his left. If the performance at Columbus was any indication, Savarese has found his best defensive combination. As much as scoring a first goal, that is reason to believe the Timbers' first win of 2019 can be followed by more success.
Porter wasn't much of a story line during Saturday's match. If it was strange for longtime Timbers players and fans to see him pacing the opposing coaching box, any angst about that was overshadowed by the Timbers' desperate need for a win.
Figure the Porter vs. Portland angle gets more attention next season, assuming the Crew visit Providence Park.
In addition to pushing the Timbers off the bottom of the MLS standings, Saturday's win gave Savarese the opportunity to spend this week's training — the Timbers will stay back east before taking on Toronto FC at noon PT Saturday — focused on strengthening partnerships such as those between Mabiala and Tuiloma, Mabiala and new right back Jorge Moreira, and between midfielders Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes, who appears to have surpassed David Guzman as Chara's partner.
• Toronto FC is 4-1-1 and second in the Eastern Conference. One could argue TFC is facing a bigger challenge this week than Portland. Forward Jozy Altidore left Friday's 4-3 win over Minnesota with hamstring tightness, then made clear his unhappiness with club President Bill Manning.
Altidore is unhappy that a trainer who worked with the club during Sebastian Giovinco's time in Toronto is no longer with TFC.
"We had a trainer here the last three years that has been helping me avoid muscle injuries, but because he was attached to Seba (Giovinco), he's not allowed in the club, which I think is ridiculous. And so now, this is what I'm faced with," Altidore said.
"Hopefully (Manning) can put his ego aside and I can get the guy that has kept me healthy, kept Michael (Bradley) healthy, kept a bunch of guys healthy, and we can move forward. To run a club, you've got to put your ego aside and put the players first."
The Timbers, of course, will focus on themselves ahead of a challenging opponent. But a distracted Toronto FC, perhaps without its biggest forward, means a better chance for success.
• It was a match for the fans. Not so much for the coaches.
The Thorns' 4-4 draw at Chicago on Saturday was one of the more memorable in National Women's Soccer League history.
Some of the best offensive players in the world put on a show, demonstrating that elite attackers can trouble even quality defenses.
Despite scoring four goals — three from ageless Christine Sinclair — the Thorns were fortunate to escape with a point. Chicago's attack generated all kinds of action inside the penalty area in the closing minutes, including a combination of one-touch passes right through the heart of the defense for the tying goal.
So Portland (1-0-1) has work to do, as should be expected this early in the season.
The Thorns' next game is at noon PT Sunday in New Jersey against Sky Blue (0-2-0). After that game, Sinclair and Portland's U.S. team players depart for training ahead of the FIFA Women's World Cup.
The Australian players will remain with the Thorns through their May 18 game at Washington. That should include Hayley Raso, who is expected back this week after missing the first two weeks while working through visa requirements.