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ON SOCCER/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Debut by Costa Rican one of many highlights for Timbers

COURTESY PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Marvin Loria celebrates after scoring his first MLS goal and the opening goal in the Portland Timbers' 4-0 victory on Saturday against the Houston Dynamo.The Timbers' faithful have a new hero.

Brian Fernandez? Last week's news.

This week it's Marvin Loria who has Portland fans excited. And why not?

The 22-year-old Costa Rican made a big impression in his MLS debut. He opened the scoring with a flying karate kick and drew the foul that earned Portland a penalty kick in Saturday's entertaining 4-0 win over Houston.

Loria's best play was in Portland's 18-yard box, when he reacted to win the ball and flick it out of danger, denying a prime scoring opportunity for Houston's Tommy McNamara. Loria's clearing ball found Diego Chara and triggered a three-pass sequence to a Fernandez goal, adding to the moment.

As on his goal — when he sprinted from the defensive 18 to the attacking 18 to be in position to score — the critical defensive play demonstrated a commitment to battle, a necessary ingredient for players under coach Giovanni Savarese.

Those who have seen the exciting Loria, 22, play with Timbers 2 know he is not shy to attack, either on the dribble or by taking shots at any opportunity. Some fans have been eager to see Loria and fellow youngsters Renzo Zambrano and Eryk Williamson get a run with the big club.

Perhaps Loria's debut would have happened sooner had he not suffered a broken toe playing for T2; the injury cost him four weeks of training this season. But it's clear Savarese isn't one to throw players into the mix until they convince him they can handle it.

Part of the challenge for young players is beating out more experienced players who have earned the coach's trust. Midfielder Andres Flores, for example, has the advantage of five previous seasons playing for Savarese. 

"Our younger players are becoming more mature, and that's important," Savarese says. "We need to continue to work with them. We need to continue to believe in all the players we have and make sure everybody stays connected, ready to play. There's going to be opportunities, and as long as we're patient, like Loría has been so far, then he's been able to show what he's capable in a game like (Houston)."

Loria got his chance on Saturday because Sebastian Blanco was serving a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation.

In midfield, 24-year-old Venezuelan Renzo Zambrano got the call for ill Cristhian Paredes. Like Loria, Zambrano earned his MLS contract with his play last season for Timbers 2. As that team's captain this season, Zambrano has helped Portland rise near the top of the United Soccer League Championship Western Conference.

Zambrano grew into Saturday's match and was solid disrupting the Dynamo. He led the Timbers in tackles — without committing a foul — and drew four Houston players into fouls.

"The first half, he did well, but I thought there were moments in which it was difficult for him. He was getting pressured," Savarese says. "But the second half, he was very impressive in the way he played, and it's great to have these types of players that are able to step on the field."

With the schedule ramping up — 4:30 p.m. PT Wednesday at Montreal and 8 p.m. Sunday at home against FC Dallas — depth will be tested. The signs last week were encouraging.

Despite having Flores and Andy Polo gone on international duty and defenders Bill Tuiloma and Zarek Valentin injured and no Blanco or Paredes on Saturday, the Timbers were dominant in two wins. Center back Claude Dielna gave a solid performance in a 4-0 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup win over the Los Angeles Galaxy, and midfielder Tomas Conechny was solid in more than 90 minutes over the two games.

Neither the Galaxy nor the Dynamo fielded anything close to their strongest lineup, but that doesn't lessen the confidence that can carry forward from an 8-0 aggregate.

And it doesn't hurt that Portland, for the first time, has the most dangerous striker in MLS.

Should he net a goal at Montreal, Fernandez will be the first player in MLS history to score in his first five games.

On Saturday — with a sublime finish at the end of another ruthless counterattack — Fernandez became only the fourth player in the 24 MLS seasons to score in his first four outings.

And his impact is far bigger than the goals. Fernandez has brought a competitive fire to the striker position that seems to have infused the entire team.

Goalkeeper Steve Clark, who faces Fernandez in training, says Fernandez's mentality is rubbing off on teammates.

"I think he's a big influence" beyond his goals, Clark says.

For his part, Clark backstopped both shutouts last week. Saturday's was the first for Portland in 2019 MLS play.

"You see the confidence growing," says Clark, who has — at least for now — taken over the starting job from Jeff Attinella.

Center back Larrys Mabiala says individual accountability, communication and more assertiveness have contributed to the Timbers defense limiting nine of its last 10 opponents to no more than one goal.

"The communication makes a lot of difference because we used to be maybe late here or there, or not giving the right information at the right moments," Mabiala says.

Communication at the back is happening faster than it was early in the season, and it is allowing for quicker, more decisive interventions.

n Friday's 0-0 tie with Utah was frustrating for the Portland Thorns. Between the two teams, 16 players were at the Women's World Cup in France. The result was a scrappy but disjointed game that featured no clear scoring chances.

Thorns coach Mark Parsons is learning during this stretch how 24-year-old rookie Gabby Seiler can fill multiple roles. Against Utah, she was the left side central defender.

"I told her I need to get out of her way and let her be her a bit more because I might be influencing too much," Parsons said, describing Seiler as a talented distributor who thinks the game at a high level. "I told her I'd rather she doesn't do what she thinks we want her to do. I want her to play and play football and be a baller because that's what she is. You don't have many players that can think like her."

The Thorns drafted Seiler, a midfielder in college at Georgia and then Florida, in 2018. Knee surgery kept her away last season.

Parsons hinted he might unleash the reins on Seiler when the Thorns play at Houston at 5:30 p.m. PT Saturday.

Seiler says she is confident in defense and in winning balls in the air, but doesn't have a preferred position.

"I would say I'm pretty comfortable in multiple positions, and I don't really have a preference," she says. "I just want to be able to help out the Thorns, whether that's at center back, whether that's in the midfield — kind of whatever I need to step up into that moment, I'm ready to do that."

As of Sunday, four of the nine Thorns players at the World Cup had been eliminated. That included Australians Caitlin Foord, Ellie Carpenter and Hayley Raso, who were knocked out in the round of 16 on Saturday, losing on penalty kicks to Norway. On Sunday, Andressinha and Brazil were knocked out by a goal from former Thorns player and current France captain Amandine Henry in the 112th minute.

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