Portland Timbers reach MLS is Back final
The Portland Timbers didn't really put away the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday, Aug. 5, at the MLS is Back Tournament.
But the Timbers did put away two corner kicks, then survived a slippery finish to climb into the MLS is Back championship match thanks to a 2-1 win over the Union in a semifinal match near Orlando, Florida.
Portland will play in the championship match at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 11.
The second semifinal, between Orlando City and Minnesota United, will be played Thursday (5 p.m., ESPN2).
This will be the second final for Portland under third-year coach Giovanni Savarese. Portland lost the 2018 MLS Cup final to host Atlanta United.
On Wednesday, Jeremy Ebobisse, in the 13th minute, and Sebastian Blanco, in the 70th minute, scored the Timbers goals off Diego Valeri corner kicks.
"It's a great feeling. We came here with one goal and that was to lift a trophy at the end of the tournament. Now we're one game away," Ebobisse said. "All the work that we've put in, and all the sacrifice that we've put in is all starting to pay off. We've got 90 more minutes and we've got a full team ready to step in.
"The strength of our group is in the collective, the guys that are coming off the bench, the guys that are being rotated in and out of the team. Everyone has come in and put in a shift."
Portland was in control on Wednesday, until it wasn't.
Philly got a goal from a free kick in the 85th minute when Andrew Wooten pounced on the rebound of a well-struck free kick. Then, in the 86th minute, it appeared Kacper Przybylko had tied it. But the offside flag went up, and the call stood after a video review. Przybylko was offside by inches, if at all.
It was the second big break of the match for Portland. Late in the first half, Philadelphia's Sergio Santos missed a penalty kick that would have tied the score 1-1.
The Timbers should have put away the game long before the frantic final 10 minutes, as they either mis-struck or mis-played at least four promising counter-attack chances in the second half.
"I think the performance was great. We could be more clinical on the chances we had," said Valeri, who played 89 minutes after coming off the bench in the quarterfinal match on Saturday.
With the Timbers content to sit deep and let the Union have the ball, Philadelphia ended up with 61.5% of possession.
But the shots attempted (15-14 Union), shots on target (8-7 Union) and corner kicks (5-4 Timbers) were all about even.
"We made it very difficult for a very good (Philadelphia) team," Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said, praising the Union and coach Jim Curtin for their performance at Orlando.
"We deserve this win because we made it very difficult and we found two good goals. Credit to the guys for the hard work that they put today."
Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark made seven saves, his tournament high, most of them comfortable. The exception was a close-range shot from Przybylko that Clark blocked in the 79th minute. He then made a nice save on a dipping free kick from 19 yards taken by Jamiro Monteiro, but the ball fell to Wooten for the easy finish to give life to the Union.
Until that moment, Portland had Philadelphia frustrated.
The Timbers focused on denying passing lanes, especially through the central areas, making it difficult for the Union to quickly change their point of attack and giving Portland's defenders time to slide together into position. Eryk Williamson and Diego Chara were huge in the middle of the park, both as strong ball-winners and in making the smart touch or pass to get out of pressure. Zuparic and Larrys Mabiala played strong in the box and wide defenders Jorge Villafana and Chris Duvall took away space without getting beat by dribbling attackers.
"(The Union) were able to find spaces, but it was very rare because of the discipline of the group," Savarese said, praising his team for staying compact. "Once we got the ball, then we became dangerous."
Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin said his team, which never trailed in the tournament before Wednesday, wasn't its sharpest. He credited Portland for making it difficult.
"Diego Chara, I would say would be a good starting point — probably the best defensive midfielder our league's ever had," Curtin said. "Clogs the middle really well, and they're well coached and organized. And, when you give up a goal early on a set piece, you're chasing right away so it was always going to be hard once they got a lead."
The Timbers jumped in front when Ebobisse beat defender Kai Wagner to Valeri's corner kick and headed the ball off the ground and into the goal.
Portland was let off the hook in first-half added time when Blanco fouled Monteiro in the box trying to defend a cross. Santos skied his left-footed penalty kick over the cross bar.
Blanco scored his third goal of the tournament (to go with five assists) with a close-range header at the back post. Defender Dario Zuparic was able to head Valeri's corner kick down into the path of the unmarked Blanco.
Even sitting in. defensive posture, Portland created enough chances to win the game comfortably.
Shortly before Ebobisse's goal, a Williamson cross just missed Ebobisse and Blanco drove a shot that Andre Blake just got a finger on — setting up the corner that Portland converted.
Before Portland's second goal, Valeri and Jaroslaw Niezgoda each put shots right to Blake. Blake made a strong stop on a curler from Andy Polo in the 69th minute, but Blanco converted on the resulting corner kick.
The Timbers certainly will enjoy having five days to recover and prepare for a high-stakes match on Tuesday. The tournament champion will divide more than $1 million in prize money and get a shot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League.
"It would mean a lot for me, at this point in my career, to get back to Portland with another trophy for our families and for our supporters," Valeri said.
• After the tournament: MLS is planning to resume its regular season with games at home stadiums, though details have not yet been announced.
A report from Steven Goff of the Washington Post said the league plans to resume the weekend of Aug. 21 to 23. He also reported that Nashville and FC Dallas, the teams that missed the MLS is Back tournament, will play each other twice between Aug. 12 and 15, and a third time on a later date.
At halftime of Wednesday's semifinal, MLS commissioner Don Garber told the FS1 TV audience that the league is planning to hold games in home stadiums, whether or not fans can attend, but he did not specify when that will begin.
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