Timbers climb into first place
One of the prettiest goals this season from the Portland Timbers produced a hard-fought 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday — and vaulted them to the top of the MLS Western Conference.
Yimmi Chara volleyed home a Jorge Villafana delivery in the 61st minute.
That goal proved to be enough as the Timbers held off a desperate Whitecaps team that finished the game with five forwards on the field. Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark made a big reaction stop in the 80th minute to deny a good opportunity from Vancouver's Lucas Cavallini.
The result moves Portland to first place in the Western Conference with two games remaining scheduled in the final week of the regular season.
Portland is 11-5-5 for 38 points. But what matters now is that the Timbers' 1.81 points per game is just better than Sporting Kansas City's 1.80.
MLS announced last week that points per game, rather than total points, will determine the standings because of games lost to COVID-19 by some teams.
Coupled with Seattle's 3-1 Sunday loss at Colorado, the win over Vancouver moves Portland to the lead.
That turn of events was countered by what appears to be a serious injury to striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda, who was injured in second-half stoppage time and carried off on a stretcher.
Coach Giovanni Savarese said Niezgoda's injury was "not good," adding that the team will know more about the striker's condition Monday.
The Timbers have two games remaining on their schedule, but the COVID-19 pandemic could impact whether or not those matches happen.
Colorado, which is scheduled to visit Providence Park at 7 p.m., recently returned to action after a string of Rapids matches were postponed after positive COVID-19 tests within the club. The Wednesday match originally was scheduled for Oct. 3.
Portland is scheduled to finish the regular-season Nov. 8 at Los Angeles FC. But LAFC had a weekend match at San Jose postponed after several positive tests.
Wins in those two matches would guarantee Portland the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. In that scenario, Portland could finish tied with Philadelphia and Toronto atop MLS on 44 points — if those teams both lose Nov. 8 — but the Union would likely win the Supporters' Shield based upon goal differential.
Portland's worst possible points per game is 1.65, which most likely would at least earn Portland a home match for the first playoff round.
Vancouver's well organized 4-4-2 formation made it difficult for Portland to create seams to attack. The goal came at the end of a buildup that included a series of quick, one-touch passes that moved the ball from back to front and from the right wing to the left wing.
The last of those was Villafana's left-footed ball into space that Yimmi Chara hit clean with a right-footed volley that left game goalkeeper Evan Bush no chance to react.
The play started with the ball at the feet of goalkeeper Clark and nine passes later the ball was in the back of the net. Portland actually strung together a dozen passes on that decisive possession, a quick exchange between Felipe Mora and Diego Valeri near the top of the penalty area helping to create the space for Chara and Villafana to combine.
"It was a great play," Villafana said. "It talks about the confidence that the team has. I think we played a really good game against a team that was playing for everything tonight."
Vancouver fell to 8-14-0 and finds itself 10th in the Western Conference with 24 points from 22 matches (1.09 points per game). The Whitecaps, who have been using Providence Park as their home during the last phase of the season, have one game left against the LA Galaxy at Providence Park on Nov. 8.
It was the fourth goal of the season for Chara and the fifth assist for Villafana, a number that leads all MLS defenders this season.
Villafana, who made his 100th MLS appearance for the Timbers Sunday, said he and Chara have developed good chemistry on the left flank.
"I think we complement each other really well and are finding that chemistry, and you see it on the pitch," Villafana said.
If Niezgoda's injury is significant, it will leave Chara as the only healthy Designated Player for the Timbers entering the playoffs. Sebastian Blanco was having an MVP-caliber season before tearing his ACL on Sept. 6.
Villafana, for one, is confident that whoever Portland has playing forward, the goals will keep coming for the team that leads MLS with 45 goals.
"I hope it's good news (for Niezgoda). But we have other players who can do the job as well. Any player who is going to be called and be up top is going to perform."
With Jeremy Ebobisse sitting out a third match in a row while he recovers from a concussion, Mora played 78 minutes up top before giving way to Niezgoda.
On the play Niezgoda went down, so did Diego Valeri after stepping awkwardly over the ball. Savarese said Valeri is fine.
Another aspect of Sunday's win was Portland's ability to hold off an opponent that attacked with desperation as the minutes ticked away. In two recent home games, the Timbers saw one-goal leads disappear in stoppage time, so Sunday's shutout win should add a bit of needed confidence to that part of Portland's play.
As he often has this season, Savarese describe his team's performance as "mature."
"Today we made sure that we protected the 1-0 (lead, that we protected the result, that we protected the 3 points," Savarese said. "The guys did a fantastic job to play a full match."
In some ways, patience was the key to this gritty win for Portland. The Timbers had 58% of possession, but the Whitecaps outshot them 12-11 (each side put two shots on target) and won 55 of 95 duels for possession.
Other than the goal, it was the Whitecaps' few chances that were more troubling than chances the Timbers produced.
In the scoreless first half, Portland's best chance was a 14th-minute volley from 16 yards by Larrys Mabiala off a delivery from Pablo Bonilla. Vancouver had a series of half chances late in the first half, including a chip by Fredy Montero that Diego Chara headed away from the goal mouth.
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