Yes, the Portland Timbers caught a Sporting Kansas City team in good scoring form.
But the way things unfolded on Sunday, Aug. 21, at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas, it's clear the Timbers have a steep climb to playoff relevance.
Sporting Kansas City scored three times in the first half and clubbed the Timbers 4-1. A 90th-minute goal from Sebastian Blanco was little solace for a Portland team that has dropped consecutive games.
William Agada scored twice for SKC, giving the Nigerian striker five goals in five games since joining the club. But it was goals two minutes apart late in the first half that doomed the Timbers. First, defender Andreu Fontas punched the ball out of a scrum 12 yards from goal to make it 2-0 in the 40th minute — a play that started with a corner kick the Timbers did not cleanly defend. Two minutes later, on a counter attack, Erik Thommy curled home a well-placed shot.
Sporting goalkeeper John Pulskamp came up big on a series of Portland chances early in the second half, but the Timbers lacked the finishing touches needed.
SKC, 31st minute —Â William Agada scored on a half-volley from close range after Graham Zusi was given time to deliver a ball into the box that defender Larrys Mabiala misplayed.
SKC, 40th minute — Andreu Fontas scored out of a scramble of bodies that screened the view of goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic. The chance came when Portland didn't cleanly deal with a corner kick and was unable to deal with the second ball into the box.
SKC 42nd minute — Erik Thommy delivered a sublime finish beyond the reach of goalkeeper Ivacic, but it was the way the play developed and the lack of hustle to defend in transition that allowed the opportunity.
SKC, 75th minute — On a transition opportunity, Agada got a step on Bill Tuiloma and put home a well-placed pass from Ben Sweat.
Timbers, 90th minute — Sebastian Blanco makes a run to the 6-yard box and redirects a cross from Dairon Asprilla into the goal.
Big picture: Portland (7-8-12, 33 points) is 10th in the Western Conference. While only three points out of sixth place, the position is precarious, at best.
Last August the Timbers had several ugly losses and still found their stride down the stretch, eventually advancing to host MLS Cup.
It's silly to count out any team in MLS with the teams so tightly bunched in the standings, but there are at least three big differences from 2021: Last August, there were still more than 10 games remaining, now there are only seven; with only seven wins (22 of the 28 MLS teams have more), Portland would lose out on any tiebreaker; and, last season, the Timbers had a few players getting healthy and getting better in the stretch run — most notably Blanco. There is no similar boost coming this season.
While coach Giovanni Savarese took responsibility for not having his team prepared, the first 45 minutes represented an appalling performance from a team in a fight for the playoffs. The Timbers looked disinterested, rarely kept the ball when they had it and seemed content to sit deep and defend without making the movement off the ball or the energy to counter.
Missing the finish: We've noted before that the absence of Felipe Mora is striking — or rather not. Jaroslaw Niezgoda has been marked out of recent games. Sure, it took some big plays by young SKC goalkeeper Pulskamp to keep the Timbers from making it interesting in the second half, but we also saw why Asprilla isn't often deployed as a true striker when he failed to put home a couple high-quality chances.
Shaky defending:Â Portland has been outscored 7-2 in consecutive losses at Toronto and at Kansas City. It raises questions about the players in the back, for sure. Perhaps the stellar play of goalkeeper Ivacic has masked some shortcomings this summer. But it's not just the back four or defending in the box. Sometimes, it's been sloppy giveaways in midfield or allowing an opponent time and space to deliver a dangerous ball. In other words, blame to go around.
Second-half surge too late:Â Portland has been a better team in second halves of games much of this season, and that was the case Sunday. Savarese shifted into a three-back formation to get more numbers in midfield and in attacking spaces. But, as the coach said, it was more about an energy shift than a tactical tweak that gave the Timbers some second-half bite on Sunday.
Gio Savarese's take on the first half: "The reality was that the first half, we had an embarrassing first half. I take full responsibility, because ultimately, I'm the one that puts the players on the field. I'm the one that prepares the players to play. And the first half wasn't to the standard of the Portland Timbers.
"I think it was more mental than anything else. We looked slow. We looked like we couldn't cover spaces. We didn't create anything offensively. We didn't get too much in behind because we weren't looking to make runs and we cut too many corners."
Savarese's take on the second half: "We did change the system, but I think was more of the effort, the mentality, the willingness to want to do it.
"When you see in the second half the effort that we put together, that's a different team. That's what we know that we are, but in the first half wasn't there."
Next Timbers match: Seattle at Portland, 7:15 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26 (ESPN).
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