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ON SOCCER: Scoring more than one goal would help Timbers survive push to finish; Thorns add Dunn, many questions remain

COURTESY PHOTO: LINDSEY WASSON/SOUNDERS FC COMMUNICATIONS - Seattle Sounders forward Will Bruin got free to score the stoppage-time equalizer on Oct. 22 in a 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers.The angst about the Timbers' late-game defending is understandable after four points disappeared over two games with stoppage-time stumbles.

Had Portland not conceded 93rd-minute goals to Los Angeles FC on Oct. 18 and to Seattle on Oct. 22, the Timbers would have entered the final four games of the regular season four points clear of second place in the Western Conference. Alas, Portland has a bit of an uphill climb if it is to finish best in the West.

But don't point fingers only at Portland's late defensive lapses, because scoring one goal is not exactly an easy path to winning soccer matches. Sure, the Timbers made one-goal wins work on their way to the MLS is Back trophy. But that ride included several cliffhangers, with the grip on the ledge perilously dicey (remember FC Cincinnati, and recall Philadelphia having a tying goal erased by the narrowest of offside decisions?).

Besides, the Timbers' strength is their attack — even without Sebastian Blanco. Portland has scored six goals twice in the last month. If this team is going to play deep into November, or longer, it will do so by scoring goals.

That's not a knock on the Timbers backline. It's a comment on the challenge of holding off a determined opponent that is throwing players forward and caution to the wind, desperate for a goal late in a match.

Think about it. When an opponent is throwing nine players or more into the attack, it becomes more difficult to for the defending team to possess the ball and to play through the pressure.

Does Portland need to improve at closing out games? Without a doubt. But the four points that got away last week came during a stretch of five games over 15 days. Against Seattle, the Timbers missed injured Jeremy Ebobisse.

Ebobisse's status for Wednesday's match was uncertain as of Tuesday, though Savarese said his concussion symptoms were much improved.

Coaches and players, of course, won't talk about those challenges. Nor should they. But it doesn't make them any less real.

Which raises questions about how Giovanni Savarese approaches the last four games, beginning on Wednesday, Oct. 28, at Providence Park against the LA Galaxy.

Sure, finishing atop the West and guaranteeing home matches through the first three playoff rounds would be ideal. But, in a season without fans in attendance, the value of the home field is diminished.

To make a deep playoff run, being healthy and rested is more significant than home field.

With that in mind, here's what's ahead for Portland: After Wednesday's battle with the Galaxy, the Timbers' remaining games are Nov. 1 at home against Vancouver, a makeup home game against Colorado on Nov. 4 and a Nov. 8 match at Los Angeles FC.

Seattle moved atop the Western Conference and clinched a playoff by beating Vancouver, 2-0, on Oct. 27 at Providence Park — the first of three road games in a row for the Sounders. Seattle's remaining games (not including an as yet unscheduled match with Colorado that might not be played): at Colorado, at the LA Galaxy and home against San Jose.

Sporting Kansas City hclimbed a point ahead of Portland with a weekend win over Colorado SKC, like Seattle, has an unscheduled makeup game against Colorado that seems unlikely to get played. If that happens, playoff positions will be decided by points per game rather than total points — a formula that might work against the Timbers. SKC's remaining games: at FC Cincinnati, home against Minnesota United and at Real Salt Lake.

Reminder: The top eight teams in the West make the playoffs, with the top four hosting the bottom four in the conference quarterfinal knockout round. The Timbers enter the weekend eight points clear of fifth place, but nothing is yet settled.

• On the human level, any disappointment from the way the match at Seattle ended was offset by happiness for Andres Flores. The El Salvadoran played for the first time in more than a year for the Timbers — a result of injuries, the death of his father keeping Flores out of the MLS is Back tournament and of Portland's improving depth.

Andres FloresTo score a goal 10 minutes into the match? "Personally, I feel very happy for the goal because I've been out for a long time and you have no idea how hard I have been working," Flores said. "I was just being patient, waiting for the opportunity. It came today in a big game and I'm really happy for the goal."

This is Flores' seventh season playing for Savarese, including four with the New York Cosmos of NASL prior to coming to Portland with the coach in 2018.

"He's gone through so much this year. He's a fighter," Savarese said of Flores. "He keeps on coming back, keeps on fighting, keeps on working. What more can I ask? And today, in a difficult place, he scored a very important goal and we were so happy for him because he's a very important part of our team."

Flores emphasized that the Timbers need to focus on the many positives despite the disappointing finish at Seattle.

"We have to keep being positive and working in this way of playing, because if we believe in what we're doing I think we're going to have good results," Flores said.

• Thorns make splash: That Portland acquired U.S. Women's National Team player Crystal Dunn in a trade announced Oct. 22 was not hugely surprising. Dunn is married to Thorns trainer Pierre Soubrier. Without that connection, Dunn likely would still be with the North Carolina Courage.

Crystal DunnThe 28-year-old Dunn gives Portland a versatile, world-class player who can play up top, in midfield or at outside back.

But the move also adds to offseason questions, most of them surrounding Portland's approach to the Nov. 12 expansion draft for Racing Louisville FC.

As of this writing, the National Women's Soccer League has not made public how many players each team can protect. The last time there was an expansion draft, for Orlando in 2015, teams could protect nine or 10 players but no more than two U.S. national team players. If you include the rights to Tobin Heath — currently with Manchester United in England — the Thorns have five members of the U.S. national team: Lindsey Horan, Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn and Adriana Franch.

Of course, there's a chance Thorns GM Gavin Wilkinson works out on a deal with Racing FC that protects Portland's most prized players. It would be a shock if Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan are not Thorns in 2021. Guessing about Heath's plans would be only that — a guess. Goalkeeper Adriana Franch figures to be left unprotected, given the Thorns' depth at that position.

Bigger picture, Dunn moving to the Thorns a year after Becky Sauerbrunn requested a trade to Portland is not a great look for the NWSL. But with European leagues poaching some of the league's top players over the last year, it's difficult for the NWSL to deny players the chance to play in their hometown.

Still, the NWSL is getting stronger, too. Investment in the league is growing, the addition of Racing FC in 2021 and of much-anticipated Angel City FC in Los Angeles in 2022 being two prominent examples.

And, no matter how this expansion draft plays out, the addition of Dunn gives Thorns supporters another reason to be excited about the day they can again make Providence Park the premier venue for professional women's soccer in the world.

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