The Turning Point: Timbers vs. Whitecaps
If the Timbers win and nobody sees it, does it really happen?
Thankfully, the answer to that question is “yes”. A quiet gathering of 3,702 people on Wednesday night at Los Angeles's StubHub Center—roughly 82% of the Timbers Army section of Providence Park—witnessed Portland defeat Chivas USA 2-0, earn their first clean sheet of the season, and win their second road game in a row.
With the victory, Portland improves to 3W-3L-7T (16 pts) and now sit a single point behind Vancouver for the final playoff spot, leapfrogging San Jose and the L.A. Galaxy in the process. Portland’s goal differential is back to neutral, and things are looking up.
This is the first two-game road winning streak in Portland’s MLS history. Credit must be given to coach Caleb Porter’s squad rotation, first handing surprise starts to Jorge Villafaña and Rauwshan McKenzie in the victory over New York, then swapping out eight starters at Chivas, entrusting newcomer Danny O’Rourke with Jack Jewsbury’s job for 90 minutes (a day after he signed his contract), and most importantly of all, giving Fanendo Adi a full match to show what he’s made of. Turns out, he’s made of some quality material. It was also wonderful to see Diego Chara back out there, up to his old tricks, cast be damned.
Adi, the 6’4” Nigerian, impressed with his head and feet. His interplay with second-half substitutes, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri, collapsed the Chivas defense towards the middle, opening up space on the wings. The aforementioned Villafaña—impressive in his own right—was the first to exploit his newfound freedom, whipping in a brilliant low cross which Adi blasted home for a textbook striker’s goal. Six minutes later, Diego Valeri played a beautifully-weighted ball straight through the Chivas defense to a streaking Fanendo, who received the ball on-side, rounded Goats keeper, Dan Kennedy, and slotted home his second. The only question left was: would Portland keep the elusive clean sheet. Again, that answer was “yes.”
Matches are coming thick and fast from here on out. A massive Cascadia Cup clash with Vancouver looms on Sunday, and Portland learned on Wednesday that their CONCACAF Champions League opponents will have them travelling to the moon and back. Squad rotation and depth will be critical to Portland’s success, and wouldn’t you know it, the Timbers might actually have more quality depth than was previously assumed.
But let’s not get too far ahead. Vancouver comes to town on Sunday well-rested. Their most recent match, a 2-2 draw with Seattle, was at home on May 24. The Timbers, meanwhile, have played two matches on opposite sides of the continent this week, and Sunday will mark Portland’s fifth match since May 11. The luxury of being able to rest Nagbe, Valeri, Urruti, Jewsbury, and Kah on Wednesday and still pull out a win is massive. Expect the usual suspects to be back in their rightful starting roles on Sunday, though prying minutes away from the impressive Villafaña may prove difficult.
Portland are also dealing with two head injuries: first, a concussion for Ben Zemanski in New York, now a suspected one for Norberto Paparatto. The unlucky Argentine was finally looking settled, and was quietly very solid. This will most likely mean the return of the Great Wall of Gambia, though McKenzie has done nothing to deserve being dropped.
Meanwhile, the 4W-2L-5T Whitecaps roll into the Rose City on a five-match unbeaten streak, including a recent win in Columbus and a whirlwind (dare we say, “Timbers-esque”) draw with the Sounders. The BC side boasts plenty of offensive firepower, despite losing Scottish International striker Kenny Miller to a mutual contract termination earlier this season.
Miller’s departure has opened up space for Gambian youngster, Kekuta Manneh and former Timbers U-23 standout, Erik Hurtado. Both possess blazing speed and plenty of finishing quality. They also benefit from plenty of service from South American duo Pedro Morales and Sebastián Fernández. Add English stalwart Nigel Reo-Coker and Argentine Matias Laba to the mix, and Vancouver’s front six is as good as any in the league.
Thus is the challenge for Portland: discredit the naysayers who might attribute this week’s six points to a shaky New York defense and Chivas, well, being Chivas. Vancouver provides a bona fide test, and the additional drama of a Cascadia derby shines the spotlight that much brighter. All in all, some home cooking and a solid dose of Timbers Army love should be chicken soup for the road-weary Timbers, and a win would be an emphatic cap to a nine-point week.