Final week intrigue for Timbers
As I write this, the Portland Timbers sit atop the Western Conference of MLS. With wins on Wednesday, Nov. 4, at Providence Park against Colorado and on Sunday, Nov. 8, at LAFC (3:30 p.m., FS1), they will be able to stay at home for at least three playoff rounds.
It's an impressive position to be in, given that Portland has been without its best player — Sebastian Blanco — for two months.
But it's precarious, too.
Because games have been canceled as a result of COVID-19, MLS will use points per game to decide who finishes where in the standings. After beating Vancouver 1-0 on Sunday, the Timbers' 1.81 points per game is best in the west.
Sporting Kansas City, which had its Sunday game with Minnesota canceled because of COVID-19, is at 1.8 points per game. Sporting KC has only a Sunday match at Real Salt Lake remaining, so will play only 21 matches.
Seattle, which sits third at 1.75 points per game, will finish with 22 games if it gets a Wednesday game at the LA Galaxy and a Sunday home match against San Jose.
If the Timbers play only one of their remaining games and win it, they will finish 12-5-5 (1.86) points per game, a record the Sounders can match with two wins. In that case, Seattle carries the goals-differential tiebreaker.
With two wins, Portland can still finish in a tie for the best record overall with Philadelphia and Toronto, but the goal-differential tiebreaker is likely to keep the Timbers from claiming the Supporters' Shield.
Still, winning the West would mean not having to travel until a potential MLS Cup final against the Eastern Conference champion. It's disappointing, of course, that the Timbers won't have the backing of their supporters at Providence Park — but avoiding travel is still plenty of incentive.
• The Timbers' goal against Vancouver on Nov. 1 was one of the club's best in 2020. There have been more spectacular goals, but the one scored by Yimmi Chara came at the end of an extended Portland possession. The buildup started at the feet of goalkeeper Steve Clark and nine passes later it was in the opposite goal.
The key was a combination of quick, one-touch passes that moved the ball from the right wing to the left, allowing Jorge Villafana space on the left side of the penalty-area to deliver the pass that Chara smashed home with a right-footed volley. Most of the passes had to happen quickly to elude Vancouver's well-positioned defenders.
The play highlighted a couple of evolving relationships.
Diego Valeri and Felipe Mora seem to have a great feel for one another, and it showed on their interplay as the ball moved from right to left across the top of the penalty area.
On the left side, Yimmi Chara and Villafana put their growing understanding to good use. It was Chara's pass that gave Villafana the chance for his dangerous pass, and it was Villafana's understanding of the space Chara would move into that led to the decisive return delivery from the left back.
"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 (Vancouver) team that was playing for everything."
Villafana played in his 100th MLS match for Portland on Nov. 1 and the 31-year-old seems to have rediscovered the confidence he had back in 2015, when his play helped Portland win the MLS Cup title. The assist against Vancouver was his fifth of the season, tying a career high and the most from any defender in MLS this season.
Villafana said his connection with Yimmi Chara makes it easier for him to know when to join the attack, that when one moves inside the other knows to stay wide.
"I think we complement each other really well and are finding that chemistry and you see it on the pitch," Villafana said.
• Depth has been a huge factor in Portland's push for the top of the league. And it will be tested some more going forward.
Polish Designated Player Jaroslaw Niezgoda suffered a torn ACL in stoppage time of Sunday's win over Vancouver.
Niezgoda's injury means coach Giovanni Savarese will be without a key strategic player who has thrived both as a starter — he scored two headers in the opening 20 minutes of the last week's 5-2 win over the L.A. Galaxy — and off the bench. In his first season with the Timbers, Niezgoda had eight goals and two asssists in 20 appearances and has been a strong option along with Felipe Mora and Jeremy Ebobisse up top.
But the Timbers kept on scoring goals after Blanco was lost in early September. They enter the final week of the regular season leading the league with 45 goals.
Villafana, for one, is convinced Portland will keep producing goals even if it's only remaining Designated Player is the surging Yimmi Chara.
"I hope it's good news (for Niezgoda). But we have other players that can do the job as well," Villafana said following Sunday's win. "Any player that is going to be called and be up top is going to perform."
That's been the case so far. It will certainly help if Ebobisse, who has missed three matches because of a concussion, can return and play at the same high level he has throughout 2020.
Thorns begin 2021 planning
We will learn on Thursday, Nov. 5, who the Portland Thorns are protecting from the Nov. 12 National Women's Soccer league expansion draft.
Teams can protect 11 players from selection by Racing Louisville FC, no more than two of them members of the U.S. Women's National Team. Figure Portland protects Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn, leaving Becky Sauerbrunn, Adriana Franch and the rights to Tobin Heath unprotected.
Last week the Thorns announced the addition of former Florida State standout Natalia Kuikka, a Finnish international center back who has been playing in Sweden.
Other Thorns under contract for next season are goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom; defenders Kelli Hubly, Meghan Klingenberg and Christen Westphal; midfielders Christine Sinclair, Rocky Rodriguez and Celeste Boureille; and forwards Sophia Smith, Morgan Weaver and Marissa Everett.
Players who have been extended 2021 contract offers are goalkeeper Bella Bixby; defenders Emily Menges and Madison Pogarch; midfielders Angela Salem, Gabby Seiler and Emily Ogle; and forwards Simone Charley and Tyler Lussi.
Defender Katherine Reynolds, 33, announced her retirement last week after 10 seasons of pro soccer, the last five with Portland. A versatile and reliable defender, Reynolds played both outside back and central defender over 77 matches with Portland.
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