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Paul Danzer on Soccer: Second game of MLS regular season a 'must-win' for Portland

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Forward Felipe Mora had some bright moments during his Portland Timbers debut.Good news! The Timbers have 33 more MLS games on their 2020 schedule.

The kickoff to the Timbers' 10th season in MLS was a flop. The 3-1 loss Sunday at home to Minnesota United took the clean slate that a new season offers and scribbled questions all over it.

Alarming? Much, much too soon to write that. Especially in a league where the teams that end up flourishing often flounder into the summer.

But, on balance, it's fair to say there were more unsettling developments in the opener than exciting ones.

Most disconcerting? This result looked and felt like many down the stretch of last season, with the Timbers' attack banging its head against a solid and organized wall of defenders to the point where, frustrated, a player or two takes a chance that ends up creating a counterattack goal the other way.

That's what happened on the first two of Minnesota's three goals. The third, which started from a punt by the Minnesota goalkeeper, was a schoolyard example of defensive breakdowns.

Not surprisingly, explanations out of the Timbers' locker room communicated that the mistakes are correctable. Midfielder Diego Valeri noted that every week in the long MLS season presents a fresh opportunity and every team will experience frustration and disappointment along the way.

He's right about that. The more telling comment from the captain, though, was about the price Portland paid for failing to finish promising chances in the first half against Minnesota.

"Overall, the first half was really good. Obviously, we were not efficient to score a goal and with a goal manage the game better," Valeri said. "If we score (first), it's easier to manage the game."

Portland did play promising, exciting soccer for about 25 minutes and might have scored two or three times as a result of its high pressure and quick ball movement. Sebastian Blanco created headaches for right back Romain Metanire and sent a series of balls across the front of goal — a refreshing change from the looping, hopeful crosses that typified the Timbers' 2019 stretch run. Valeri and new forward Felipe Mora had some encouraging passing sequences.

Mora had a solid game, earning two penalty kick-worthy fouls — though only one was awarded — and scoring a late (though meaningless) goal erased by an offside decision that looked incorrect (though not clear and obvious enough to overturn the decision on the field).

But as the match moved along, it became clear that Blanco will need help if the Portland attack is to be consistently threatening. One who must help with that is Yimmi Chara. The younger Chara isn't yet fit to play 90 minutes at full speed, so it's premature to rush to judgment about Yimmi's game or impact. Yimmi Chara did make the quick dribbling run out of midfield that produced the penalty kick foul on Mora.

But Minnesota, not Portland, turned speed on the right wing into the game-changing advantage.

Portland left back Jorge Villafana had the challenging task of defending speedy Ethan Finlay, who triggered all three goals for the visitors. Communication was the word Villafana kept going back to when discussing what went wrong.

"Communication (is key). We want to high pressure. If we don't pressure on time or we don't have the right (balance) in the back, of course we're going to get exposed," Villafana said.

Most exposed was Larrys Mabiala. The central defender lost an unnecessary challenge in the attacking half and was out of the play on Minnesota's first goal. He was ball-watching when Robin Lod had his point-blank chance saved by Steve Clark. And he lost his mark on Luis Amarilla on the go-ahead goal.

Aside from individual mistakes, Portland continues to struggle with the balance between attacking and defending. Outside back was the position I had most questions about entering the season and — Mabiala's struggles aside — the opener did not change that.

New center back Dario Zuparic looked good. He was flat-footed during the defensive mess on the third Minnesota goal, but had a series of timely interventions, including an impressive flick header while facing his own goal.

And Clark had another strong match. He probably wants the go-ahead goal back, but it was a close-range chance headed down well by an unmarked Amarilla. Clark made a remarkable diving stop to deny Lod's 8-yard shot with the score still 1-1. On the first Minnesota goal, Clark made a strong aggressive play to initially break up the chance, but got an unlucky bounce and no defensive support.

Bottom line: it is much too soon to make any grand predictions about the arc this season will take. We haven't seen new designated player Jaroslaw Niezgoda. The injured Bill Tuiloma might be a critical piece at center back, right back of midfield. Zuparic looks like a solid center back, and newcomers Yimmi Chara and Mora deserve the time to adapt.

So here's where I make a ridiculous pronouncement, anyway.

The Timbers, who were looking forward to opening the season with two at home, now face a "must-win" match.

Nashville SC will be at Providence Park at 4 p.m. Sunday. If the expansion club's second MLS match ends with anything but a Portland win (or, at the very least, a goal from the run of play for the home team), the heat from frustrated loyalists in Portland will rise to a point that will have the Timbers wishing they had kicked off 2020 with five or more games on the road.

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