It's home sweet home for Timbers, Thorns
Reunion weekend at Providence Park did not disappoint as the Timbers and Thorns returned to a much fuller house and made their long-lost fans happy with a pair of wins.
I hope none of those fans decided to get a jump on the halftime rush at the restroom.
Because in both Saturday's 2-1 Timbers victory over Sporting Kansas City and in Sunday's 1-0 Thorns win over KC, the decisive moment happened more than four minutes into first-half stoppage time.
In the Timbers' case, Marvin Loria played pinball wizard and wound up walking into the goal with the ball for Portland's second goal.
In the Thorns' case, Simone Charley took a chance, beat KC goalkeeper Abby Smith to the ball and rolled it into an unguarded net for Portland's only goal.
It was as if the soccer gods treated Portland supporters to a cathartic moment or two.
Didn't matter that the three goals scored by the home sides happened at the south goal. Didn't matter that attendance at Providence Park was limited to 80% of the full 25,218. The weekend games provided a long-awaited sense of normalcy and a reminder of the joy that comes from a shared live experience punctuated by continuous chants, songs and drum beat.
I can't tell you how many fans were there — the club has declined to announce attendance figures — but it was nice to hear the familiar soundtrack of Providence Park.
The emotional high point of the weekend happened about 80 minutes into the Timbers match. As soon as fans saw Sebastian Blanco preparing to enter the match, the noise started to build. After a high-five and quick hug from friend Diego Valeri, Blanco dashed onto the field, and the volume hit its loudest of Saturday evening.
Blanco, one of the best players in Major League Soccer, returned to action 286 days after he suffered a torn ACL. Like the fans who saluted him, Blanco had nine months of energy to burn and looked to be his usual skilled and feisty self over the 15 minutes or so he played.
It was an encouraging first step, one that Blanco will work to build on as he gains fitness and, eventually, returns to a leading role.
He very much wanted to return sooner. Last year, Blanco made it clear he wanted to represent the Timbers in the Concacaf Champions League. He was close, until an injury set back his return.
"I was ready two months ago or less and I hurt my leg twice — the same injury," Blanco said, reflecting upon that disappointment. "I try to stay focused, stay training, fight, and I think everything happened for a reason. I had the opportunity to come back today. It was a perfect day. I think this day will live with me in my memories, my mind, my body for the rest of my life."
Blanco's return deserves the headlines, but there were other encouraging signs in the Timbers' win over a Sporting Kansas City squad that sits second in the MLS Western Conference.
That includes the return to health of Diego Chara, who made his first tackle within 30 seconds of the start of the match.
Claudio Bravo kept SKC's Johnny Russell from doing damage. It was the most solid defensive performance to date from the first-year Timbers left back. Given the team's lack of a natural left back behind Bravo — he is the only Portland player to start all 11 matches in 2021, including the Concacaf Champions League — his growing comfort in MLS is critical.
Goals came from Dairon Asprilla and Marvin Loria, players thrust into more prominent roles because of the injuries and guys who stepped up with Yimmi Chara (Colombia) and Felipe Mora (Chile) with their national teams. It was the second MLS goal this season for each of them. As Loria noted afterwards, scoring goals boosts confidence.
Larrys Mabiala joined Chara in playing for the first time since May 9; Bill Tuiloma continued to be steady, and provide good emergency defending; Renzo Zambrano came off the bench for important minutes to help the Timbers protect their one-goal lead — something the Timbers struggled mightily with in 2020.
Given all of the injuries, a 4-4-0 record and sixth-place in the Western Conference isn't bad entering a busy stretch that starts with a Wednesday, June 23 match at Houston (5:30 p.m., ROOT Sports) followed by a Saturday, June 26 home match against Minnesota United (8 p.m., ROOT Sports).
The Thorns, meanwhile, are tied atop the NWSL standings (4-2-0, 12 points) and have not been scored on in a three-game win streak. Sunday's match against KC, like the Timbers match a night earlier, was a welcome-back occasion, of sorts.
"It's not even at full capacity. But anyone who hasn't experienced full capacity here wouldn't know, because the energy was there," goalkeeper Adrianna Franch said. "You could tell people have been waiting for their time to be in the stadium and be a part of it."
Sunday's match also was a send off for Thorns players headed to the Olympics, a list we learned on June 23 that will include Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn and Franch for the United States and Christine Sinclair for Canada. Those players will rejoin their national teams after Portland's June 26 visit to North Carolina (4 p.m., KPDX/Paramount+).
Portland has the depth to handle those absences, and it should be fun to see who steps up.
Also of interest is whether or not Olivia Moultrie might be one of them. The 15-year-old won a second round in her legal challenge to the NWSL's rule that players must be 18 to play in the league. As of this writing, Moultrie, who has trained with the Thorns since she was 13, had not signed with the league.
Thorns coach Mark Parsons last week claimed he wasn't following the twists and turns of Moultrie's status. But he did sound like she's ready to play when it's allowed.
"She's been training superbly throughout this very weird and interesting period. She's maintained focus. She's maintained great energy and passion and positivity," Parsons said. "We just wait until the green light. Hopefully we're close. Because she deserves the opportunity for sure."
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