Late goal sends Timbers to dramatic playoff victory
The way the Portland Timbers had battled, the prospect of playing an extra half-hour probably wouldn't have fazed them.
Then again, playing extra time at altitude against the Colorado Rapids might have proven to be too much of a challenge.
Thanks to the right foot of Larrys Mabiala, it wasn't necessary.
The central defender scored his second goal in as many playoff games, converting from a corner kick in the 90th minute as the visiting Timbers advanced to the MLS Western Conference Finals with a dramatic 1-0 Thanksgiving Day win over the Rapids.
Another memorable playoff triumph on the road means Portland will play either at Sporting Kansas City or at home against Real Salt Lake for the chance to reach the MLS Cup Final for the third time in club history.
Real Salt Lake visits Kansas City at noon on Sunday. The conference final will take place either Dec. 4 or Dec. 5.
The Timbers head into that match most likely down two attackers. Sebastian Blanco left Thursday's match in the 52nd minute with an apparent hamstring injury. He ran down a ball behind the defense and managed a weak shot as he rolled to the turf clutching the back of his left leg. Coach Giovanni Savarese said "it doesn't look good" for Blanco being available next weekend.
In stoppage time, Dairon Asprilla was shown a red card for a hand to the face of Braian Galvan during a shoving match as the Rapids player tried to take the ball from Asprilla on a Colorado throw-in. Savarese said the Timbers will appeal Asprilla's suspension.
But, given the rules about hands to the face of an opponent, a repeal seems unlikely.
Mabiala's second goal from a corner kick in as many games came when he cracked home a right-footer from close range after Felipe Mora tried to bicycle kick the ball. Yimmi Chara's corner kick deflected off a Colorado head onto Mora's chest. With Mora falling backward, Mabiala was in the right place to put home the winner.
The way the goal came will certainly stick with the Rapids. But the result wasn't a fluke. After Colorado dominated early, Portland was the more dangerous team in the second half and had several chances to score before the goal, the best off another corner kick when Colorado's Danny Wilson cleared a shot from Josecarlos Van Rankin off the goal line.
Colorado took the game to Portland in the first half. The Rapids played like the top seed in the West while outshooting Portland 9-2 and forcing a couple of big saves from Steve Clark along with some emergency defending.
The match flipped after halftime. Portland saw more of the ball, took away the spaces the Rapids exploited early in the match and outshot Colorado 10-1. Rather than wearing down in the altitude, the Timbers seemed to find their legs after halftime.
Savarese said patience with the ball was key, and that switching the point of attack and not forcing the attack were keys to Portland's second-half surge.
So was adjusting without the ball to limit the spaces, particularly up the wings, that Colorado enjoyed early in the match.
In fact, it was after Blanco's departure that the Timbers became more assertive.
"Seba is the leader of the team, offensively at least," Mabiala said. "The mindset was, we have a lot of good players in the team, in the group. And somebody is going to step up and make a play that will allow us to get that win."
That somebody was Mabiala, who has two playoff goals after not scoring all season.
Clark, who made a pair of point-blank stops in the first half, said the Timbers were fine even as the Rapids came at them in waves early.
"We have really incredible defensive players and center backs and (Diego) Chara and Cristhian Paredes do such a good job in the middle of it," the Timbers goalkeeper said. "We're comfortable defending deep. Colorado's on top of us, we expected that. There's no panic. We understand what it takes to dig out of those minutes and to weather their storm."
Weather it, they did. Now more challenges await. If Blanco and Asprilla can't go, who will get the call? Might Savarese unleash a two-striker formation with Mora and Jaroslaw Niezgoda — who started as the lone striker and played 66 minutes Thursday —Â on the field together?
The coach shrugged off questions about how he might adjust without Blanco and Asprilla. He emphasized that the focus on Thursday was to make their Thanksgiving away from family and friends worthwhile.
"I told our players, 'Let's give (our families) some happiness. Let's thank them in the best possible way by winning and working hard,'" Savarese said. "I think the guys were able to achieve that. So, we're very happy and content with what we achieved today."
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