Timbers storm into semifinals
Two goals from second-half substitutes carried the Portland Timbers to a 3-1 win over New York City FC on Saturday in the quarterfinals of the MLS is Back Tournament near Orlando, Florida.
That the go-ahead goal came from Diego Valeri was predictable.
That Andy Polo would deliver a screamer of a goal, less so.
That coach Giovanni Savarese has this team bought-in during a tournament that is challenging in multiple ways is obvious.
Portland will take on the Philadelphia Union at 5 p.m. on Wednesday for a place in the MLS is Back championship match. The semifinal will be televised by FS1. Portland again will have less rest than its opponent, but that kind of challenge that hasn't buckled the team, yet.
Sebastian Blanco, who continues to play at an elite level, scored just before halftime to level the score. Valeri, who entered the game at halftime, put Portland in front in the 64th minute. Andy Polo capped the victory in the 76th minute with a pretty curler from 22 yards out.
"I think the team showed a strong mentality. I think it was important that we were able to find the equalizer (before halftime)," Savarese said. "We had a little slow start, but then, little by little, we started picking it up, moving the ball better, finding spaces. I thought the second half we had a tremendous performance and a well-deserved win."
The Timbers fell behind on a first-half penalty kick, but for the most part kept NYCFC out of dangerous areas. And, despite only having 39% of possession, Portland attempted only one fewer shot and a 5-3 edge in shots on target.
Valeri put the Timbers in front with a shot from 11 yards in the 65th minute. The finish came at the end of a combination of quick passes, ending with a wonderful touch pass by Jaroslaw Niezgoda to set up Valeri.
Polo's second goal in three seasons with Portland sealed the win. On a quick counter-attack launched by a forward ball from Blanco, the Peruvian had teammates running into the box. But he chose to strike a shot with his right foot that curved perfectly beyond goalkeeper Sean Johnson and into the right corner of the net.
"This goal means a lot to me because it gives me a lot of trust, but it also gives the team a lot of trust," Polo said through a translator.
"The execution was perfect. He's been training that. It's not something that just came today. He's been putting the ball there in practice," Savarese said. "That goal was huge for us at that particular time and gave us a lot more calmness in the moment."
Using Valeri as a halftime substitute not only saved wear on the 34-year-old, it allowed Portland to become more lethal with the possession it had, changing the tenor of the match.
New York City FC went up 1-0 in the 27th minute with Jesus Medina converting a penalty kick after Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala was ruled to have fouled Medina inside the penalty area.
Blanco evened in the 43rd minute, deftly curing a 12-yard shot into the right side of the net after a cross from left back Jorge Villafana deflected to Blanco.
The Timbers had two fewer days than NYCFC since their previous game, and at first seemed content to defend in numbers. Portland had a chance to jump ahead quickly, but Jeremy Ebobisse was high on an open shot from the right side of the penalty area.
NYCFC's best chance other than the penalty kick was a try from Valentin Castellanos in the 24th minute. After a Portland turnover, Castellanos tried a shot from the midfield stripe that went just high with Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark well off his line.
In the 54th minute, NYCFC's Johnson made two strong saves in a row to deny Ebobisse.
Clark came up with a save moments later. In the 60th minute Eryk Williamson was fortunate not to pick up a second yellow card, which would have meant Portland playing with 10 the rest of the way. Instead, Polo relieved Williamson in the 75th minute and quickly assured that Portland is one of the final four clubs playing.
• Niezgoda entered the match in the 52nd minute when Yimmi Chara had to exit with what looked like a possible hamstring problem. Niezgoda again was effective as both a target and using his speed to stress the NYCFC defenders.
• It was the 300th Timbers match in all competitions for Diego Chara, who came to Portland early in the club's first MLS season in 2011. The Colombian midfielder has played every minute of this tournament and continues to be the stabilizing force in the middle of the field that is vital to executing Savarese's plans.
"There's no better way to play my 300th game with the same Timbers jersey," Chara said. "I'm very happy and proud of this team. Now we have the opportunity to play the semis against a great team."
• Blake Bodily, a product of the Timbers Academy and a Tigard High grad originally from Eagle, Idaho, made his first appearance with the MLS club, coming on for the final few minutes.
• In the semifinals, Portland again will face an opponent that enters the game with two more days to prepare than the three the Timbers will get.
"We could have come into this match and complained and said that we had less days, we're tired, (that) the players haven't rested enough," Savarese said. "But it's about figuring things out, and the players coming and showing up.
"Now, we (again) have less days (than Philadelphia) to figure it out," he added. "But the heart of the guys, the way they are going about it, has been fantastic."
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