Timbers need their best to beat the best
It's a safe bet the Portland Timbers won't let the frustration from Sunday's loss to Atlanta United fester.
The Seattle Sounders arrive for a 7 p.m. Friday game. And, as Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri noted, the Cascadia rivalry means so much more to Portland than missing a chance to avenge its 2018 championship game loss to Atlanta.
Still, the takeaway from Sunday's showdown with the defending champions is that Portland does not have any margin for error when taking on the power clubs of MLS.
The two teams that have come to Providence Park and toppled the Timbers this season are the clubs that have in the past three years led the paradigm shift of MLS — and raised the bar by setting big goals and investing in top talent.
Los Angeles FC, which won 3-2 on June 1 in the reopening of Providence Park, is running away with the Supporters Shield, on pace to shatter league records for goal scoring and points in a season.
With its 2-0 win over the Timbers on Sunday, Atlanta climbed to the top of the Eastern Conference for the first time this season and looked every bit a title contender.
The Timbers are still on solid ground. A win over Seattle would move them closer to the top four in the West and clinch the Cascadia Cup. And they weren't outclassed or run off their pitch by Atlanta. If Valeri gets to Sebastian Blanco's second-minute cross on Sunday or if Brian Fernandez isn't ruled to be offside later in the first half, the Timbers might well have rode their homefield momentum to a meaningful win.
Bottom line, though: On Sunday, the Timbers weren't good enough to beat the best.
Portland coach Giovanni Savarese said his team needed to be calmer in vital moments and in responding to playing from behind. But my sense was that Sunday's result was more about the quality of the opponent than any Timbers shortcomings.
"We threw everything at them that we could, but they're a good team and they found the way to beat us," Savarese said. "I thought it was an even game. It was just the moments they took advantage of that make the difference."
"Moments" is a word uttered countless times by losing soccer coaches. But once Josef Martinez scored his 21st goal of the season — and in his 11th league game in a row — just 45 seconds after halftime, it was a tough ask for the Timbers.
Yes, they forced Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan to come up big — especially on a dart of a header from Julio Cascante. Yes, Portland had Guzan barking at his defenders consistently in the second half.
But, for all of its love of attacking soccer, Atlanta United is especially difficult to come from behind against. Its ability, like Portland's, to strike quickly on the counterattack makes throwing extra players forward a dicey play.
Then there is Darlington Nagbe. During his seven seasons in Portland, Nagbe was mostly used as an attacking midfielder (though he played a deeper role during the Timbers' run to the 2015 championship). For Atlanta, Nagbe plays in front of the defenders and provides a talented escape valve when United are under pressure.
Valeri noted that Atlanta's system is a good fit for Nagbe, who doesn't care about scoring but makes every teammate better.
"They have a good system with Darlington in the middle. He (does) a great job winning second balls, connecting with the back line, covering a lot of ground," Valeri said.
It wasn't Nagbe who Portland missed on Sunday. The Timbers did miss central defender Larrys Mabiala. Cascante and Bill Tuiloma are still young players, and against a dynamic forward such as Martinez, more experience would have been helpful.
Savarese said Mabiala is making progress from the hamstring injury suffered last Wednesday. But the coach wouldn't put a timeline on Mabiala's return.
No surprise in that. Coaches like to keep such information quiet when they can. That's especially true in Portland when it's Sounders week.
• A crowd of 20,825 attended Saturday's 3-1 Thorns win over Washington.
The victory kept Portland (9-3-6, 33 points) in first place in the NWSL.
It was the third crowd of more than 20,000 in the last four home games, a trend that should continue on Sunday with the second-place Chicago Red Stars (9-6-2, 29) in town for a noon match.
Chicago features NWSL scoring leader Sam Kerr (13 goals, two assists) and United States World Cup champions Alyssa Naeher, Julie Ertz, Morgan Brian and Tierna Davidson.
Kerr's closest pursuers in NWSL 2019 goals are the Thorns' Christine Sinclair, Amy Rodriguez of the Utah Royals and Kristen Hamilton of the North Carolina Courage, all with eight.
North Carolina (8-4-4, 28) is third, with Utah (8-6-3, 27) and Reign FC (7-4-6, 27) tied for fourth.
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