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ON SOCCER/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Portland plays top soccer in wins over Columbus, Toronto

PMG FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Bill Tuiloma (left) defends in a 2018 game against Minnesota United.There is a lot to like about the Portland Timbers' recent form, beyond the results.

The wins at Columbus and more recently, Toronto, are encouraging. The last 35 minutes of Saturday's first half at Toronto — despite a goal allowed — were some of the best soccer we've seen Portland play in some time.

The strengthening of partnerships — especially through the middle of the pitch — is a significant story.

In the middle of the defense, Bill Tuiloma seems to be growing into his role as vocal leader and confident defender alongside Larrys Mabiala. I've harped on this before, but take-charge center backs are vital not only for keeping opponents out of dangerous spots but as eyes for the teammates in front of them.

The Timbers appeared to be missing Liam Ridgewell's confidence and personality early this season. But in the last three weeks, the bond between Tuiloma and Mabilala has provided the foundation for Portland's vast improvement.

Coach Gio Savarese acknowledges the importance of such partnerships but emphasizes that defending, like attacking, is a team endeavor.

"Sometimes we have a tendency to look at center backs and defenders and blame them directly for some of the situations they have to face," Savarese says. "Always the mistakes we make defensively have to do with the entire team. The team is doing things better, and that also (allows) for our defenders and center backs to do better."

• The partnership between the 31-year-old Mabiala and the 24-year-old Tuiloma isn't the only one that appears to be growing stronger by the day.

In front of them, the pairing of Cristhian Paredes, who turns 21 in 18 days, and 33-year-old Diego Chara appears to be blossoming.

Chara is among the most dependable midfielders in MLS, a fierce competitor who does not appear to be slowing down.

Paredes has re-emerged as a willing sidekick in the last three weeks. I say re-emerged because for the first half of his rookie MLS season, the Paraguayan was a regular in the starting lineup. But he was not a factor as the 2018 season moved into its stretch run and did not play in the postseason.

In starting the last three games — the Timbers' best three performances this season — Paredes has been a willing and dangerous addition to the attack. He's been equally engaged defensively, willing to make 30-yard sprints to recover positionally or to take the tactical foul when needed.

And he's handled different marching orders from Savarese in the past three matches.

"He's been good on the ball and covers a lot of ground, which has been very good for us," Savarese says. "He can help defend, and he's able to make runs inside the box that can unbalance the defense." 

• One more partnership that seems to be growing is that of Sebastian Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse.

Blanco continues to be one of the most dangerous attackers with the ball at his feet in the league.

Ebobisse's ability to anticipate Blanco's moves, as he did on the run that produced his diving header for the go-ahead goal at Toronto, is one way the young forward is progressing.

• In some respects, it's been a quiet start for Diego Valeri, who turns 33 on Wednesday. Playing mostly as a withdrawn striker, Valeri isn't on the ball as often as he was during his MVP season two years ago. Yet there he is, tied for the MLS lead in assists with six.

Most of those have come from free kicks and corner kicks. But it's silly to downplay the value of a lethal delivery — especially in road games when restarts are often the best scoring chances.

It's just a reminder that Valeri still can be a major contributor — one whose play will continue to be vital even after Portland lands the attacking Designated Player it has been chasing for months. (Recent reports out of Mexico indicate 24-year-old Brian Fernandez — a 5-7 Argentine winger/striker who has 12 goals and three assists in his last 15 matches for Necaxa of Mexico's top league — is close to joining the Timbers).

• We won't see the Portland Thorns at their best again for a few months. The club's U.S. national team players begin training for the World Cup this week — which means the not-so-secret weapon of Tobin Heath's heels will be working for her country the next few months.

Heath scored her second goal of the season in Sunday's 2-2 draw at Sky Blue FC. She converted by kicking the ball backward into the goal with her heel. This time she did it with two defenders next to her and a surprised goalkeeper behind her.

Heath has scored a goal in six of her last seven NWSL regular-season games.

• One streak that will end when the Thorns return to action on May 11 at Orlando is Christine Sinclair's remarkable run of 55 consecutive starts for the club. Sinclair will have joined Canada's training camp by then to prepare for her fifth World Cup.

At 35, this should be her final World Cup. Then again, Sinclair is playing such a high level of soccer I'm not going to bet against her being in the 2023 tournament.

• Thirty-two days remain until the Timbers' debut at the renovated Providence Park, but fans can catch Timbers 2 at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Merlo Field versus Rio Grande Valley FC, the Houston Dynamo affiliate.

The reslient Timbers' second team leads the United Soccer League Championship Western Conference at 4-1-3 (15 points).

In Friday's wild 3-3 tie before more than 12,000 fans at Albuquerque, T2 midfielder Eryk Williamson was a beast. Portland erased a two-goal second-half deficit and led 3-2 before a stoppage time equalizer. Williamson had two goals and one assist, but more significantly was calm and controlled in what became a frenzied battle in the second half. The 22-year-old is one of six young field players on the Timbers' MLS roster who are gaining pro experience.

• Nick Carlin-Voigt isn't going anywhere. That's great news for the University of Portland men's soccer program.

The job opening at UCLA, where Carlin-Voigt was an assistant coach before coming to Portland in 2016, spawned rumors that UP could lose its respected young coach to the Bruins.

"It's a tremendous job (at UCLA), but I also think I have a wonderful job," he says, listing the soccer culture at UP and in the city, along with perhaps the best playing surface in the country at Merlo Field, among many reasons he envisions a great future on the Bluff.

UCLA did reach out to Carlin-Voigt, but Portland has become home and he wanted to quell any rumors before they could impact recruiting.

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