Timbers roll into playoffs
Things could not have turned out much better for the Portland Timbers on Sunday.
One of their most spirited efforts of the season produced a 3-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes at Providence Park to lock down Portland's third consecutive trip to the MLS Cup Playoffs.
And scores away from Providence Park also broke the Timbers way.
Portland 14-13-7 (49 points) finishes sixth place in the MLS Western Conference and will open the playoffs at 7 p.m. on Oct. 19 at third-place Real Salt Lake (TV on ESPNEWS). New this season, every playoff round is one game.
Win the first-round match at RSL and the Timbers will play either at Seattle or at home against FC Dallas in the conference semifinals. Portland won't see either Los Angeles club or Minnesota United until the conference final.
In what essentially was a playoff match, the Timbers were without injured Diego Valeri and suspended Brian Fernandez. But Portland came out flying against a San Jose side that had to win to make the playoffs.
And Dairon Asprilla put on his playoff cape, scoring his second goal of the season — and second in as many games.
Inserted into the lineup with the absences, Asprilla scored the go-ahead goal in the second half and was a perfect weapon against the man-marking system employed by Quakes coach Matias Almeyda.
Asprilla's goal in the 59th minute broke a 1-1 tie and Sebastian Blanco added a free kick goal in the 75th minute to essentially end the drama on MLS Decision Day.
San Jose finished 13-16-5 (44 points), eighth in the West, four points behind seventh-place FC Dallas.
Portland defender Larrys Mabiala opened the scoring in the 29th minute, and the Timbers improved to 11-0-3 when scoring first this season. Mabiala scored his second goal of the season from eight yards with a left-footed effort to meet a Jorge Villafana cross on a play that started with a free kick from the right wing. San Jose cleared the initial ball, but Asprilla cotrolled it and sent Villafana into space. Villafana's low cross connected with the big center back.
"I didn't want to go back to defense because I really wanted to put pressure on this (Earthquakes) team," Mabiala said. "The (defender) lost me. I was alone in the box and I just focused on the right way to hit that ball to put it in the back of the net."
He sprinted to the Portland bench to celebrate, meeting fellow defender Claude Dielna for a dogpile.
"I just wanted to celebrate with (the substitutes), because the amount of work they put into the training sessions," Mabiala said. "It was my way to make them feel the way I was feeling."
The good feeling lasted 10 minutes.
MLS career goals leader Chris Wondolowski tied it in the 39th minute, getting between Bill Tuiloma and Jeremy Ebobisse to finish a cross from Cristian Espinoza on a play that started with a San Jose corner kick.
Energized by the stakes, a revved up audience, and by the attacking space available against a man-marking opponent, the Timbers were the more dangerous team almost start to finish.
They were especially focused early in the second half. A tie would have put Portland in the playoffs, but Asprilla's goal meant San Jose needed to score twice in the last half hour to qualify.
Ebobisse controlled the ball, spun away from Guram Kashia and and sent a pass to Asprilla, who beat Florian Jungwirth to get into the penalty area. Goalkeeper Daniel Vega blocked Asprilla's first shot but he put the rebound into the open goal.
Ebobisse said that goal was an example of opportunities that can come against man-to-man defenders.
"Turning into the middle of the field and I see no one but (Asprilla). Maybe against another team there are three or four guys blocking that pass," Ebobisse said. "It's something that we took advantage of in that moment."
Blanco's 25-yard right-footed free kick for his six goal of the season provided a release of the remaining tension for a team and a fanbase that has experienced more frustration than fun late in this season.
Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said he was proud of the effort and execution of his team in a playoff-type atmosphere.
"The energy from the fans today was different, was incredible. Very proud of the performance," Savarese said. "They executed the plan that we worked on during the week and we showed a lot of character."
Savarese said he hopes Valeri (calf injury) can return to training soon and the coach is happy to have a week off for players to get fit before the playoffs begin.
Portland won both games against Real Salt Lake this season, 2-1 on May 4 in Utah and Aug. 31 1-0 at Providence Park.
"(The playoffs) is where we want to be, where I think we deserve to be," Savarese said. "We will prepare and hope we can get everybody back and fit to. be able to have all the selections possible."
The other playoff matchups fpor the Oct. 19-20 weekend have the LA Galaxy visiting Minnesota with that winner advancing to meet Supporters' Shield winner Los Angeles FC. The FC Dallas at Seattle winner will face the Portland-RSL victor.
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