Relieved Timbers head to playoffs
The MLS season was turbulent for the Portland Timbers.
Which is why Sunday's playoff-clinching 3-1 win over San Jose felt cathartic.
Providence Park felt like a real home-field edge as the Timbers played with a determination and a confidence that has been, like the results, hit and miss in 2019.
That the Timbers were without two of their most important players — Diego Valeri because of injury and Brian Fernandez because of rash behavior — presented a challenge that has become the norm for coach Giovanni Savarese.
The coach rolled out the same lineup in consecutive games only four times this season. Never in the last 24 games on the schedule did the same XI start consecutive matches.
Injuries, suspensions, a congested schedule and matchup/form decisions played into that.
Taking it a step further — I admit much more subjectively — Portland has sent out my choice for its best 11 players only twice this season.
Sure, my opinion doesn't factor in how well players train, matchups or tactical decisions (for some reason I'm not invited to those meetings). But it's still a bit startling. To put a finer spin on it: Since the home opener on June 1, the five most important field players — center back Larrys Mabiala, defensive midfielder Diego Chara, attacking midfielders/forwards Valeri and Sebastian Blanco and striker Fernandez — have been in the starting lineup together in only six of 22 games (and none of the last 10).
That lack of continuity harmed on-field chemistry and turned the long homestand into a stress-management exercise.
Until Sunday's strong performance against the Earthquakes, the Timbers' belief seemed shaken. Yet the Timbers woke up on Sunday confident, and played that way in the afternoon.
"I was very confident because we have a great group of players," Mabiala said, pointing to consistently good practice habits.
He said the hard work in training sessions was the reason he celebrated his Sunday goal with the substitutes on the bench.
"Everyone who has participated this year has been doing a great job, even though the results have not been always the results we wanted," Mabiala said.
The poster guy for that sentiment against the Earthquakes was Dairon Asprilla. It was only his 30th appearance, and just his 14th MLS start, in the 68 regular-season games Savarese has managed. Asprilla started only one of the previous 15 matches and played 106 minutes in the second half of the season. But the coach said he saw a hunger in Asprilla leading up to the match, and the 27-year-old Colombian rewarded his coach.
The newfangled playoff system means there is no margin for error. Each game — beginning with the 7 p.m. Oct. 19 date at Real Salt Lake — is a knockout battle.
The performance again San Jose tells me the Timbers might be primed for more playoff noise.
Savarese has a track record of getting teams into championship matches, as he did last season. Their counterattack is well suited for road success. And their best players — Valeri, Blanco, Chara, Fernandez and Mabiala — should be plenty motivated to write a thrilling ending to this roller-coaster season.
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