Timbers win a stunner
Brian Fernandez and Jeremy Ebobisse have scored some big goals this season, and the Portland Timbers expect more in the future of their two most-productive forwards.
But it's unlikely either will contribute more dramatic goals than the ones that came as time dwindled away Saturday against Sporting Kansas City, with Portland's playoff prospects about to take a significant hit.
Ebobisse scored the tying goal in the 83rd minute, and Fernandez, coming off the bench because of illness, converted a leaping header in the fourth minute of stoppage time as the Timbers rallied for a 2-1 win that had Providence Park at its boisterous best when it ended.
Instead of falling into a tie with Sporting Kansas City outside of playoff position, Portland is sixth in the MLS Western Conference. The Timbers 13-11-4 (43 points) are tied on points with fifth-place Real Salt Lake and seventh-place FC Dallas. They are just one point up on the Los Angeles Galaxy, but six points clear of Sporting KC, which is 10-12-7 (37) .
Portland trails second-place Seattle by three points with a game in hand, is two points back of Minnesota and one behind San Jose in the ultra-tight playoff chase.
Despite dominating many aspects of the match, the Timbers were in a 1-0 hole after Benny Fielhaber's ball from the right wing floated into the goal in the 65th minute.
As has often been the case at home this season, Portland struggled to create high-quality chances against an organized opponent. And with a 1-0 lead, Sporting had the Timbers right where they wanted them.
But the three substitutions by coach Giovanni Savarese made an impact.
Marin Loria, who came on in the 78th minute, made the give-and-go pass in the 83rd minute to spring Diego Chara into space in the right side of the penalty area. Chara's cross found its way between the legs of Graham Smith, and Ebobisse was there for his ninth goal of the season.
A tie, while much better than a loss, wasn't what the Timbers were after, given the crowded playoff chase.
Stoppage time substitute Tomas Conechny won a second ball and slipped a quick pass to Diego Valeri on the decisive sequence. Valeri sent a ball across the goal mouth, where Fernandez rose for the winning header.
"It's impressive. I didn't know (Fernandez) could jump that high," Ebobisse said.
Fernandez didn't enter until the 70th minute because of a stomach bug, replacing a sulking Dairon Asprilla and injecting urgency and another problem for the SKC defense.
"There's an added level of fear factor that happens when you see a guy like Brian come onto the field," Ebobisse said. "It gives us another look, too. A fresh guy who's leading the team in goals to hopefully find a winner like he did tonight. It's an important boost for us."
Saturday's drama was the kind of boost that can be worth more than one win. The 11th MLS goal of the season for Fernandez not only lifted the Timbers to a vital victory, it also should be a confidence boost for the forward who had gone scoreless in five of his six previous appearances.
Ebobisse and Fernandez have been working on reading each other's movement inside the penalty area, and Ebobisse called Saturday an important step forward for that relationship.
"The last couple of weeks, we've been working on our movements in the box, making sure we make opposite movements," Ebobisse said, noting they haven't been consistent with executing as they learn to play together.
"Tonight is another step in the right direction as far as movement in the box. With my aerial ability and his ability to find (space) and finish first-time, if we can nail down the sharpness of our movements, with two guys that score like that in the box it's going to be tough for defenses to deal with us."
Both Savarese and Sporting coach Peter Vermes had to deal with a roster depleted by international call-ups and injuries. The Timbers had only five substitutes available.
Defenders Larrys Mabiala, Julio Cascante, Zarek Valentin, Modou Jadama and Marco Farfan remain on the injured list. Winger Sebastian Blanco (thigh strain) did not suit up Saturday. He started the previous 12 games and played at least 87 minutes in all but one of them. And midfielders Cristhian Paredes, Renzo Zambrano and Andres Flores were away with their national teams.
That meant Eryk Williamson started alongside Chara in midfield, making his second MLS start and first at Providence Park. Savarese said Williamson did a solid job executing his assignment as a link in midfield.
"Credit to him. He did very well today," Savarese said.
Sporting KC had five players on international duty, most significantly Felipe Gutierrez (10 goals, three assists) Johnny Russell (nine goals, seven assists) and Krisztian Nemeth (seven goals).
Both teams had chances missed before Kansas City broke through — none better than when Sporting's Daniel Salloi had an open goal after Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark misplayed a cross. But Salloi's 61st-minute volley from six yards sailed high.
Minutes later, Feilhaber deked past Andy Polo and spun a crossing ball from the deep right wing that floated over the reach of Clark and just inside the left post.
The Timbers had two shots for penalty kicks in the first half. In the ninth minute, referee Alex Chilowicz pointed to the spot when a Valeri ball deflected off the arm of Luis Martins. But after video review, Chilowicz changed the call. It appeared the defender's arm was against his body when it made contact with the ball.
In first-half stoppage time, a cross deflected off of the leg of SKC defender Matt Besler into his arm, but no foul was called.
Savarese went off on the officiating during his halftime TV interview. He reiterated after the game that he is frustrated with what he believes is inconsistent interpretation of the hand ball rule.
"There's confusion. They don't know what is a hand ball. We saw today two hand balls could have been PKs," Savarese said. "I'm not saying that it is something against us. I think they are confused. I think they need to figure it out, and they need to make sure that it stays steady."
Fortunately for Savarese and the Timbers, those decisions did not matter.
"We needed a win like this. These are the type of wins that give you more belief that we're on the right path," Savarese said. "It wasn't only about the sacrifice and the work that the team put in, but it was quality. We moved the ball very well. We created chances. Very pleased with the performance today."
Five of the Timbers' six remaining games are at home, including their next match at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15 against D.C. United. Their one road game is on Sept. 29 at Sporting Kansas City.
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