Draw gets Timbers third place
The Portland Timbers appeared to be stumbling toward the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first 45 minutes of Sunday's Decision Day match against Los Angeles FC.
But they played a much better second half at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles Nov. 8, and earned a 1-1 draw thanks to a 90th-minute goal from left back Jorge Villafana.
The result, along with twists and turns elsewhere, means Portland finishes third in the Western Conference and will host FC Dallas in the first round of the playoffs. That match will be played Nov. 21, 22 or 23 at Providence Park.
Sporting Kansas City won the top seed of the Western Conference with a win at Real Salt Lake and Seattle ran past San Jose to jump past Portland into second place.
The Timbers finish the regular season 11-6-6. Their 39 points are equal to Sporting Kansas City and Seattle, but those teams played fewer matches and thus have a higher points-per-game average.
"Even though we got a little lucky in the first half, we feel like they got a little lucky in the second half," Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said. "Coming back in a stadium like this, against a team like LAFC, is always a good sign."
The Timbers were playing from behind most of the match, thanks to a fifth-minute goal from Carlos Vela. It was the fourth of the season for last season's MVP, who was making his first start since August.
The tying goal came from a quick counter that started with a close-range save from Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark on a shot from Brian Rodriguez. Diego Valeri helped start the play, then delivered a cross from the right wing that found the head of an unmarked Villafana to head down and into the net from six yards.
"It felt good to make a big stop and then go down the field and score. I was pretty excited about it," Clark said. "It's really incredible how often after a goalkeeper's big save the other team scores. It's really weird."
It was Villafana's first goal since the last game of the 2015 regular season. Maybe it's a good omen. Portland also finished third that season and went on to win the MLS Cup title.
The assist was Valeri's seventh of the regular season and 99th in all competitions for the Timbers.
"I'm happy that I scored, but also that we managed to come back and tie the game at a tough place," Villafana said.
The high press from LAFC combined with a tricky wind mostly in Portland's face, along with the absence of suspended midfielder Diego Chara, to present trouble for the Timbers for much of the first 45 minutes. The home side outshot Portland 9-1 (5-0 on goal) and owned 60% of possession in the first half.
A formation tweak helped Portland have much better possession in the second half. Savarese asked Eryk Williamson to find more space between the LAFC midfielders and act as an outlet and connector more than as a defending midfielder, a change that gave the Timbers a needed option for passes out of the back.
But it took until an 80th minute chance for Diego Valeri of the Timbers to put a shot on goal. Valeri struck a delivery by Yimmi Chara the first time, but goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer was able to make the stop.
That was the Timbers' first shot on target in some 200 minutes, dating to Chara's goal against Vancouver a week earlier.
That opportunity seemed to energize the Timbers, who generated a couple more chances before breaking through on a counterattack.
When Cristhian Paredes came out in the 77th minute, Williamson dropped deeper and Andy Polo took over the connector role in midfield. Polo delivered the ball to Valeri on the attack that produced Portland's goal.
In the second half, Savarese said, the Timbers found spaces they didn't find in the first 45 minutes.
"They found the gaps that we needed to find. I thought the second half we played very strong in the things that we needed to do and the assignments that we asked the players to do," Savarese said.
Clark finished with six saves, and three LAFC shots hit the frame. But the Timbers remained within striking distance despite falling behind early.
The Timbers' chances of finishing first in the West took several blows early. First, Vela scored a tap-in goal in the fifth minute for LAFC, an opportunity that came after LAFC pressure forced a Williamson giveaway.
Clark stopped a Latif Blessing shot but the rebound went to an unmarked Vela, who made his first start since Aug. 11 because of a knee sprain.
That goal, combined with Sporting Kansas City taking an early lead in the snow at Real Salt Lake, meant a first-place finish was going to be difficult for Portland.
But the first-round bracket shifted multiple times throughout the afternoon and wasn't settled until a Diego Rubio stoppage time goal lifted Colorado past Houston and to fifth place in the West. Until that goal, Portland was looking at meeting LAFC again in two weeks in the first playoff round. Instead, LAFC will be at Seattle in the first round. If Portland beats FC Dallas it will meet the Seattle-LAFC winner in the conference semifinals.
Savarese said his team targeted first place but deserves credit for playing the most matches in MLS in 2020 (27, tied with Orlando City).
"We didn't want to finish third. We wanted to finish first. There's always the desire to be better," Savarese said. "But for the amount of things that we have gone through this year, incredible (effort by) the group in how much they have put in."
Portland again was without attacker Jeremy Ebobisse, who missed a fifth consecutive game because of a concussion.
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