After his team nearly squandered one of its best starts of the season on Wednesday, Portland Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese was emphatic that the performance in a 3-2 win over the Chicago Fire didn't pass muster.
"This is a game we have to make sure we finish early, and we didn't," Savarese said. "It's something we need to be better and we're capable of doing. But today the group just relaxed and didn't put the foot on the accelerator at the moment we needed to."
Brian Fernandez scored twice, including a crucial goal in the 88th minute, and Jorge Moreira scored a nifty goal as Portland got the result it needed against a struggling opponent.
The Timbers inched back into seventh place, above the MLS Western Conference playoff line for the second time this season. Portland is 11-9-4 (37 points), one up on eighth-place FC Dallas and only three points out of a top-four spot. The top four is significant this season because those teams will play host to at least the first playoff round.
Chicago is 7-11-9 (30), 10th in the Eastern Conference. The Fire have never beaten the Timbers.
The Timbers came out flying, built a 2-0 lead in the first 21 minutes and looked primed to keep scoring. The Fire were down to 10 men after Aleksander Katai was given a red card in the 30th minute. He tangled with Portland defender Julio Cascante near midfield and caught Cascante with an arm to the face. Referee Silviu Petrescu had his back to the play but sent off Katai after a video review.
From there, Portland controlled possession, often in and around the attacking 18-yard box, but could not produce a decisive third goal.
So when Nemanja Nikolic was first to a second-ball from a Chicago free kick and scored in the 74th minute, the Timbers were in an unexpected battle.
"We had to keep calm, to think about what we have to do, to not make mistakes," Cascante said. "Thankfully, we got the three points."
Fernandez restored breathing room with his team-leading 10th MLS goal, a nice finish on a counterattack that emerged off of a Fire corner kick.
Tomas Conechney delivered the pass to find the chance for Fernandez, the second assist in as many matches for the 21-year-old Argentine. He is the first Timber to record consecutive assists as a substitute.
C.J. Sapong scored for Chicago with a header in the second minute of stoppage time.
As thrilled as he was with the first half hour of the match, calling the start "phenomenal," Savarese expressed frustration with the way it ended.
"Once they went a man down, we slowed down, became too casual. We didn't play simple," Savarese said. "Yes, we created many opportunities but these are the moments we have to take advantage (of). We have to be that team that at that moment makes sure we don't let them do anything. We have to just make sure they give up."
Diego Valeri, who recorded his club-record 15th assist on Fernandez's second goal, didn't think the Timbers let up but said missed scoring chances can cost points.
"We had a lot of possession. We had a lot of chances. But when you miss three, four chances and then have a couple mistakes so they score a goal, the game looks like you didn't do much," Valeri said. "But it's a game where you could lose points, and we got the three points, which is the most important thing."
Moreira's second goal of the season put Portland up 1-0 in the 11th minute.The right back delivered a poised finish into an open goal from 20 yards after collecting a rebound.
A perfectly placed ball over the top from Sebastian Blanco gave Marvin Loria a chance behind the defense. Loria got to the ball just before goalkeeper David Ousted, who blocked Loria's attempt but was out of the play while Moreira collected the loose ball and put a left-footed shot into the unmanned goal.
Fernandez doubled the lead with the kind of goal scored by guys who get to the front of the goal.
Moreira rolled a pass for Cristhian Paredes in space on the right side of the penalty area, and Paredes' low cross met Fernandez in front.
Fernandez missed the well-placed cross with his right foot, but the ball caught his left knee and deflected inside the post.
"I thought I was going to miss that ball, but fortunately it hit my knee and it went in, luckily enough," Fernandez said through a translator.
Timbers center back Larrys Mabiala departed the game in the first half with a left hamstring injury.
Bill Tuiloma, recently back from injury, replaced Mabiala, and Cascante shifted from left to right in the middle of the defense, an adjustment Cascante said he is always prepared to make.
Valeri's assist broke a tie with North American Soccer League era's John Bain for the most in one season by a Timber. Valeri is tied with Carlos Vela of Los Angeles FC for the MLS lead in assists this season. Valeri shared the team record with 14 assists in 2014.
Portland dominated possession (63 percent), shots (15-5), shots on goal (7-2) and chances created (11-4). Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark did not have a save.
Loria got his second consecutive start. Jeremy Ebobisse opened on the bench before replacing Loria after the first Chicago goal. Conechny came on in the 61st minute for Blanco, who has logged the most minutes among Portland's attacking players.
Portland will play nine of its remaining 10 games at home, including the next eight.
A big test comes at 7 p.m. Sunday. Atlanta United visits Providence Park for a rematch of last season's MLS Cup final. After struggling early in the season, Atlanta (13-9-3) is up to second place in the Eastern Conference and on Wednesday defeated Mexico's Club America 3-2 to win the second Campeones Cup, a match between the reigning MLS champion and the winner of a summer match between the winners of Liga MX's Apertura and Clausura tournaments.
After facing Atlanta, Portland will get an Aug. 23 from Seattle.
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