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For Timbers, Sounders' visit Sunday is secondary to CCL quarterfinals; Thorns host NWSL Challenge Cup

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND TIMBERS/CRAIG MITCHELLDYER - Dairon Asprilla and the Portland Timbers have a significant opportunity this week, and its not the May 9 game against Seattle. Its the Wednesday match in Mexico City against Club America.These are words I never dreamed I'd type: Over the next few days, Portland's professional soccer teams will play three times. The LEAST significant of those comes Sunday, May 9, when the Seattle Sounders visit Providence Park.

Blasphemy?

Hardly.

Entering this week, the Timbers' focus was squarely dialed into the opportunity to play at storied Estadio Azteca in Mexico City against the appropriately-named Club America, which has more fans than any other North American soccer club and which has won more Concacaf Champions League trophies than any other club.

The Thorns? They will play Saturday, May 8, in the championship match of the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup, a game that will be nationally televised by CBS and is an opportunity to add a trophy before the regular-season kicks off in two weeks.

So, sure, Sunday's visit from the Sounders will be a big deal when it arrives. But, as one of three matches between the bitter Cascadia rivals, it takes a backseat in terms of significance this time around.

Thing is, the Timbers traveled to Mexico City with a real shot at victory. The two-leg CCL quarterfinal matchup was level 1-1 after each team scored from a penalty kick April 28 in one of the more dramatic and intense matches Providence Park has seen.

Knock off one of the giants of Mexican soccer, and Portland will advance to face a MLS opponent — most likely the Philadelphia Union — when the CCL semifinals take place in August and September.

The Timbers chances of getting there would be much better if Sebastian Blanco, Jarolslaw Niezgoda and others were healthy. But, if Portland can conjure up the same confidence and drive that the Timbers played with in the second half of the first leg, they can score multiple goals. That would give them the tiebreaker if the game ends in a draw.

It is a huge opportunity, and the Timbers' investment in that opportunity meant playing a less experienced lineup on Saturday, May 1. The result was a 4-1 loss at FC Dallas, but it was far from a wasted exercise.

That game will be remembered mostly for the debut of a 19-year-old goalkeeper.

Hunter Sulte has been around since he moved to Beaverton in 2016, leaving his Anchorage, Alaska, home when he was 13 years old to join the Timbers youth academy. Now, the senior class president at Southridge High, Sulte handled his debut well despite falling behind in the opening minutes. Yes, FC Dallas scored four times. Sulte didn't make any spectacular saves, but the tallest goalkeeper (6-7) to play in MLS certainly couldn't be faulted for any of the Dallas goals.

It also was a solid debut for central defender Zac McGraw, a performance that, despite the one-sided scoreline, should ease concerns about the Timbers depth at centerback. McGraw. the first player from West Point and the second out of a service academy to play in MLS, was assertive when needed in back and had a couple of near misses on set-piece headers.

Portland's lineup also included Blake Bodily, who played both on the left and up top in his second MLS start, the return of Jeremy Ebobisse for 15 minutes, 45 minutes of top right back Josecarlos Van Rankin at left back, a series of dangerous set-piece deliveries from Marvin Loria and a terrific goal from Eryk Williamson with an assist from Diego Valeri on his 35th birthday.

After the game in Dallas, Savarese said he prefers to put players in a better position to succeed in a debut than he did for Sulte and McGraw, but that the lineup at Dallas was necessary. And, as the coach pointed out, Sulte left Dallas a better goalkeeper for the experience.

That Seattle match on Sunday? It is slated for a noon start on national TV (ABC) and is the Timbers fifth game in 16 days, concluding a stretch complicated by the injuries that limit Savarese's lineup choices.

Thorns play for trophy — Portland will host NY/NJ Gotham FC at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 9 for the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup championship match. The match at Providence Park will be televised on CBS/KOIN 6.

Information on whether any fans will be allowed had not been announced when the Tribune went to press.

Portland finished atop the West Division with a 3-0-1 record following a 1-1 draw at Houston on Sunday, May. 2. Christine Sinclair scored the goal for the Thorns. Gotham FC (formerly Sky Blue FC) won the East Division with a 2–0-2 record. The NWSL regular season begins for the Thorns on May 15 with a home match against Chicago.

Oregon State men — The Beavers season ended on Sunday, May 2 in Greensboro, North Carolina with a 2-1 loss to Virginia Tech in the NCAA Tournament round-of-32. A Tyrone Mondi goal in the 87th minute got Oregon State to overtime, but Jacob Labovitz's second of the match 10 minutes into overtime won it for the Hokies. Oregon State finished 9-5 in this unique spring season.


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