SEATTLE — The Timbers are not yet above the MLS playoff line, and they need to figure out how to win on their home field. But the final performance of a five-games-in-15-days grind demonstrated how much of a pain they can be.
On Sunday in Seattle, Portland won with determination, dedication and a little good fortune. And, for the third time in two weeks, Portland handed an opponent its first home loss of 2019.
"We've got a great coaching staff and a lot of great players. That's how it happens. There's a lot of winners on this team."
Those were the words of goalkeeper Steve Clark, who was front and center in Portland's 2-1 win at CenturyLink Field. The first of Clark's seven saves came seconds after the opening kickoff. It set the stage for a night that ended with Clark having a spirited interaction with Seattle's Roman Torres that sparked some postgame shoving between the rivals.
The Timbers are 6-7-2 in MLS play away from Providence Park. Throw in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup wins over Seattle and Los Angeles FC and it's eight wins on the road this season.
Clark and Brian Fernandez, who scored both Sunday goals and has four in two games against the Sounders and 11 in 12 games in all competitions in his short Timbers career, were the obvious stars on Sunday.
Fernandez (eight goals in nine MLS games) again showed he is a big-time, big-game forward. Afterward, he said big crowds make him happy and he loved the energy from the 50,072 at CenturyLink.
But to me, the man of the match was Sebastián Blanco. He might be most comfortable on the left side of midfield, but the work he did along the right side on Sunday was critical.
Time and again, the Sounders attacked Blanco and Jorge Moreira, a strategy that made sense. Moreira has had some shaky moments defending and making Blanco defend the Sounders could in theory keep him from contributing to the attack.
But Moreira, in Blanco's words, was an animal at right back, and Blanco was in rivalry mode, meaning he was having fun.
"They came through the right side a lot — Jorge did well, 'Chucky' (Blanco) put in a good shift," Clark said.
Blanco is the one field player who started all five games over the past two weeks. He said the coaches never talked with him about taking a night off.
"I'm a little tired, of course," the 31-year-old Argentine said in the happy visitors' locker room on Sunday. "We prepare. We're professional and we need to live like this."
And rivalry games are the spice of life for Blanco.
"Every rivalry in every country (is special)," he said. "Every player in the world wants to play in a rivalry. It doesn't matter where, it's important, and I enjoy every one."
Rivalry or not, Blanco wants to play every game, but knows he needs to be honest with his coaches.
"I need to be smart. If I feel something strange or tired I need to communicate it for the good of the team. But now I feel good, so I'm happy to continue to play every game," Blanco said.
While they wait for any discipline that might come from Sunday's postgame fracas, the Timbers can take a lot of satisfaction in the competitive spirit and in-game composure they displayed during a challenging stretch of games.
Asked what the five-game stretch of three road wins and two home draws says about the 2019 Timbers, midfielder Diego Valeri didn't hesitate.
"It says we are a strong team, very secure and confident about our quality and how we are going to fight to the end to be in the playoffs," he said.
• Last week's news that the Timbers parted ways with Lucas Melano was hardly a surprise. The Argentine forward never lived up to the hype that followed him to Portland in July 2015. The Timbers reportedly paid a $5 million transfer fee to acquire Melano from Lanus. He did contribute to Portland's 2015 MLS Cup championship run, scoring the clinching goal in the Western Conference championship and getting an assist on the Cup-winning goal scored by Rodney Wallace.
Wherever he lands, I hope Melano can thrive. I had the opportunity to do the first English-language interview with Melano, and he always had a friendly greeting when our paths crossed.
By shedding a player whose contract was reportedly $700,000 this season, the Timbers free up some of the allocation money they were paying to keep Melano below the Designated Player threshold.
That money might help GM/President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson add a player before the transfer window closes on Aug. 7.
Even if Portland doesn't add an attacking player in this window, the club checked one item off of it's to-do list with Monday's confirmation that Tomás Conechny, the 21-year-old Argentine attacker who came to Portland a year ago on loan from San Lorenzo, was acquired and signed to a new contract.
• On Wednesday, for the first time this season, the National Women's Soccer League-leading Portland Thorns will have their U.S. national team players and Women's World Cup champions available for a home match.
"Any exhaustion that we do feel is surpassed by the excitement to be back home," goalkeeper Adrianna Franch said last week before flying to Utah to play in Friday's somewhat crazy 2-2 draw. "When I saw all these girls, it was home. I'm excited to be back. We've been on the road for over two months, and that's just exhausting in and of itself."
The best news for the Thorns and their fans is they won't need to leave home much over the next few months. Starting with Wednesday's visit from Houston, Portland will play eight of its 11 remaining regular-season games at Providence Park.
Given the Thorns had nine players at the World Cup and played most of their games on the road, it's remarkable Portland (6-2-5, 23 points) is in first place. But there is real work to be done if the Thorns are to finish there.
Among the top half of the league, Portland's 18 goals conceded are by far the most. It's fair to believe the defending will improve with the return of Franch — the reigning NWSL goalkeeper of the year — along with some lineup stability and perhaps some rest for Katherine Reynolds (who quietly deserves consideration as team MVP so far).
In the draw at Utah, only several high-level stops from Franch prevented Portland from losing. The Royals were dominant in the second half, winning most of the possession battles in midfield.
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