Portland Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese, in the wake of Friday's 2-1 loss to the rival Sounders, said he believes his club has championship pedigree.
Given the playoff run that Portland made last season, it's silly to doubt that Savarese can figure out a winning formula. But the new MLS playoff single-elimination structure would make a similar run unlikely if the Timbers cannot find a formula for dominating at Providence Park.
Two home losses in six days dropped the Timbers back below the playoff line. Yes, the Western Conference remains tight. Yes, Portland has games in hand over many teams. But Portland is three points below the seventh-place red line and has a few red flags to consider.
First among those is a suddenly fragile central defense. As of this writing, I have no idea how bad Julio Cascante is hurt or how much longer Larrys Mabiala might be sidelined. But Portland could face a confident Real Salt Lake (winners of seven of its last 10) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday with Claude Dielna and Bill Tuiloma at center back.
Though it looks like Tuiloma has a bright future, last week's two losses provided a reminder that Portland's defense needs Mabiala's leadership and physical presence.
Savarese was more emotional than usual after losing the Cascadia Cup at home and falling six points behind the Sounders. Even as he praised his personnel. Savarese said this run of 10 consecutive home games might have made his team a bit too comfortable.
"Our players are unbelievable. I believe in our guys that we can go all the way this year," he said. "But this is a moment maybe in which we're getting too complacent and we need to come with the hunger that we have shown in a lot of the games."
The lack of intensity to start the most significant home game of the season was hard to explain.
"Everything was just slow," Tuiloma said.
The players wouldn't use as an excuse the 33 minutes of silence from the Timbers Army and Sounders supporters in protest of the MLS banning the Iron Front symbol. It is a symbol banned in 1933 by the Nazis in Germany that has long been associated with groups opposing threats to democracy.
MLS has banned the Iron Front symbol on banners, flags and tifos under the league guidelines banning political signs — citing recent use of the symbol by sometimes violent antifascist groups.
Many players — including the MLS Players Association — have come out in support of MLS fans being allowed to display the three-arrows symbol. It's hard to imagine that Friday's protest will change MLS policy this season, but forfeiting homefield advantage for 33 minutes against the bitterest of rivals was a bold statement from the Timbers Army.
Providence Park sounding like it did in the days of Triple-A baseball, odd as it was, did not cause Zarek Valentin to lose Jordan Morris in the buildup to the Sounders' first goal.
The relative quiet of the first half wasn't the reason the Timbers again struggled to create big chances against a bunkered opponent intent upon limiting Portland's counterattack.
Let's face it, the coach has some challenges ahead.
The big one is finding ways for his talented attackers to break down opponents who crowd their defensive third. Brian Fernandez has gone scoreless in five of the last six games. Sebastian Blanco has one goal (and three assists) in the last nine games. Diego Valeri has been doing his part with three goals and five assists in the last nine games. And Jeremy Ebobisse has scored in two of his last three starts.
Savarese said his team put in great effort but was too hurried in its effort to erase the Sounders' lead.
"We had to be calmer in those moments when we're (behind) to make sure that we believe in ourselves," Savarese said.
The home-heavy schedule was supposed to be calming. But with each disappointing result — including draws with Orlando City and Colorado — pressure mounts.
The Timbers will play seven of their eight remaining regular-season games at home, including the next six. Six will be against teams ahead of the Timbers in the standings, and Sporting Kansas City, which Portland plays twice, is suddenly right on the Timbers' heels.
The tight playoff race is typical MLS. But it means the Timbers cannot squander many more chances, or Providence Park will be a quiet place come playoff time.
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