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ON SOCCER/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Thorns' Sinclair closing in on international goals record

As first impressions go, Brian Fernandez's was memorable.

It wasn't only the goal — a well-taken finish as the Portland Timbers earned a 1-1 draw last Wednesday at Houston — but the way Fernandez energized his teammates and unsettled the Dynamo defense that was fun to watch.

He scored about 12 minutes after entering the match as a second-half substitute, on the second shot attempt of his MLS career.

The pass from Sebastian Blanco was the kind that never works in professional soccer — a looping long ball out of the defensive half. But that pass, its technical quality perhaps lost in the magnitude of the goal, was well-placed. Fernandez controlled it with a delicate first touch, then calmly placed the ball around charging goalkeeper Joe Willis.

The Fernandez goal reminds of another debut goal that came slightly later in a game. In the 2013 season opener at Providence Park, Diego Valeri scored in the 14th minute against the New York Red Bulls by juggling the ball off his right foot and chest on his way into the penalty area, then flicking the ball into the goal. To me, that remains one of the best goals in club history, for its artistry (a nifty one-touch pass from Kalif Alhassan sent Valeri through).

Fernandez knocked fellow Argentine Valeri from the club record book for fastest goal as a Timber. Valeri was 26 when he scored his first Timbers goal. Fernandez is 24.

Portland figures to need something special in the next couple of weeks. First is the last of a dozen road games to open the season. When the schedule came out, the trip to face Philadelphia looked like a chance for Portland to end its odyssey with a winnable match. Well, the Union — not among the big spenders of MLS — are tied for first in the Eastern Conference (and are first in the East in points per game).

Portland visits Chester, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, for a 4:30 p.m. PT Saturday game.

The Timbers' home opener doesn't look like a picnic, either.

Los Angeles Football Club comes to Providence Park on June 1. LAFC is 9-1-4 (31 points) and has outscored its opponents 32-9, with a home game against Montreal this week. Quite the homecoming opportunity for the Timbers. 

• Sometimes the word poacher is used to describe players who score goals by hanging around the 18-yard box and pouncing on opportunities. Poacher is a word that implies — usually unfairly — a player is more opportunistic than skilled.

San Jose's Chris Wondolowski is one of those players. On Saturday in San Jose, Wondolowski scored four goals. He hadn't scored all season and had barely seen the field for the Earthquakes, but became the all-time career scoring leader in MLS in spectacular fashion against Chicago.

His second goal of the night pushed him ahead of Landon Donovan as the league's career goals king. In a way, it was the perfect way for "Wondo" to ascend to the crown. D.C. goalkeeper David Ousted dropped a cross into the box, and Wondolowski pounced, toe-poking the ball into the goal.

That goal not only passed Donovan for MLS career goals, it tied Donovan at 41 career game-winning goals. (Valeri has 22 game-winners to lead the Timbers, which ranks 31st in MLS history).

I loved this quote from Wondolowski about the less-than-artistic record-setter:

"To be honest, I've probably crashed in on every shot like that probably 1,000 times and 999 times he catches it and holds it and I have to run back," he said. "This time I saw it come to the ground and I was able to get a toe on it."

Most forwards, even the best ones, don't consistently make such an effort. That's why, as annoying as Wondolowski can be for opponents, his results should be appreciated.

In the Timbers organization, the player who most reminds me of Wondolowski is Foster Langsdorf. I don't write that to make a prediction, or to put more pressure on a player whose future with the club became a little more uncertain with the arrival of Brian Fernandez.

But Langsdorf, who transitioned from a midfielder into a forward only four years ago and became the Pac-12's all-time goals leader on national championship teams at Stanford, isn't shy about going into high-traffic areas around the goal or to take a chance on a run that seems like it might be wasted energy. Of his 18 goals in 38 games for Timbers 2, 17 have come from inside the 18-yard box.

Something else Langsdorf — all of us, for that matter — might take heart from is Wondolowski's persistence. In his first five seasons in MLS, Wondolowski played 842 minutes, which is less than 10 90-minute games. It wasn't until his seventh season, in 2010, that Wondo became a regular starter (and scored 18 goals in 28 appearances).

• Fans eager for the opening of the renovated Providence Park get a shot to see it this week. The new eastside structure remains closed for construction, but T2 will play at 7 p.m. Saturday against the El Paso Locomotive and at 7 p.m. on May 29 against Real Monarchs SLC.

Those games will give stadium folks a chance to test things like the big new replay screens and new sound system. It's also an opportunity to see the team at the top of the second-division league now called the USL Championship. Portland is second in points but first at points per game (1.8).

• Another scoring record could fall during the Women's World Cup that begins July 7 in France.

Thorns team captain and former Portland Pilots great Christine Sinclair scored her 181st international goal on Saturday in Canada's 3-0 win over Mexico in a World Cup tune-up match. Sinclair, 35, needs three more goals for Canada to equal the 184 goals Abby Wambach scored for the United States.

As anyone paying attention to the Thorns can tell you, Sinclair shows no signs of slowing down. Catching or passing Wambach during the World Cup — Canada, ranked fifth in the world, faces Cameroon, New Zealand and the Netherlands in group play — is not far-fetched.

• While Sinclair was scoring for Canada, the Thorns were losing for the first time in 2019. A spirited effort from Washington produced a 3-1 win over Portland on Saturday. It was the type of game the Thorns usually win.

The Thorns usually are the team that wins set-piece battles. In this case, Washington scored twice from corner kick, and Portland wasted a series of well-positioned free kicks in the first half — the kind of deliveries Lindsey Horan might have turned into goals.

Given the roster shuffle and the weeks on the road, it's no surprise that the Thorns weren't their typical, ruthless selves.

Beginning with this week's game at Sky Blue FC, the Thorns face up to two months without their international studs.

As coach Mark Parsons has said for months, this is an opportunity for players who are not household names to put their stamp on the franchise.

Life without international stars might not sound exciting to fans, but how the Thorns navigate this stretch — and which players really step up — will be intriguing.

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