Hunger, grit propel Timbers to MLS playoffs
The regular season was unconventional for the Portland Timbers.
Surviving 12 road games at the start figured to be the biggest challenge. Turns out, scoring goals consistently once they got to play a bunch of home games proved problematic.
Brian Fernandez burst onto the scene after arriving in Portland, scoring in his first four appearances and recording six goals in his first six MLS games. But Fernandez's influence faded. He played in only three of the last seven games and is likely out until 2020 after voluntarily entering the MLS Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program.
Yet the Timbers start the playoffs at 7 p.m. PT Saturday at Real Salt Lake with a real shot at another deep run.
Last season's march to the MLS Cup final should breed confidence. Giovanni Savarese has a track record of playoff success as a coach. And this team is at its best playing without the ball and striking on quick counterattacks, which is how Portland earned 20 points from its last 10 MLS away games (plus an upset win in the U.S. Open Cup at Los Angeles FC).
The new playoff format means every game is a knockout. A young Real Salt Lake squad showed its promise by shaking off a coaching change and front-office upheaval to finish third in the Western Conference. RSL put an emphasis on defending and allowed the second-fewest goals in the West (41), but scored the second fewest (46).
Salt Lake is not without talented attackers. But RSL doesn't have a combination that has experienced success in big moments equal to Portland's Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri. For that reason, I can see this long, strange season continuing beyond Saturday.
n Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark was snubbed by the players, coaches, GMs and select media members whose votes determined the three choices for each MLS year-end award.
Nothing against Goalkeeper of the Year finalists Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (New York City) or Vito Mannone (Minnesota), but none was better — or more important to his team — than Clark was for the Timbers. Clark has the league's best save percentage (77.1%) and a goals-against average (1.04) lower than any of the finalists and easily the best of his six-year career. Beyond the numbers, Clark's voice is vital for Portland and his ability to distribute the ball significant.
Maybe playing in only 24 of 34 games or being less physically imposing than the trio of finalists explains Clark's absence. Because it certainly isn't his performance.
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