After 25 minutes it looked like this was going to be a blow-out. The Timbers were up 2-0 and looking dominant against a Colorado side that had fired their manager less than 2 weeks ago.
Then Lawrence Olum passed out of defense directly to Mohammed Saeid and compounded his error by failing to close down the shot. As has often happened this season the Timbers contrived to keep a weaker opponent in the game.
Drew Fischer in the VAR booth did his best to keep the blow-out on script a few minutes later, calling referee Dave Gantar’s attention to a little pull on Valeri in the box. Technically it was a foul, but it probably wasn’t the kind that should really be troubling the virtual referee (yes I do know the V is for Video). As with most laws in soccer the spirit of VAR will take some time to fill in the gray areas around the actual written rules. In this case the ball was always missing Valeri and if he wasn’t about to head it into the net it shouldn’t be a penalty kick – just like the old ‘rules’.
The Rapids had parted company with Argentine born former USA international Pablo Mastroeni just 8 days before this game. Their DP striker Kevin Doyle told the Denver Post:
“Pablo knows, and we know, it’s a business and we haven’t been good enough this year,” Doyle said. “Unfortunately, he’s the one that bears the brunt, as it always is in sport. It’s the manager or the coach who is the one who gets it and we live to fight another day as players. He’s got fantastic qualities to be a really, really good manager and I’m sure he’ll prove that in years to come, as he did last year with us. It’s only eight months ago that we got to the conference finals.”
Interim coach Steve Cooke kept Colorado in a deep defensive formation with 2 of their faster, more dangerous players, Dominique Badji and Marlon Hairston (cousin of former Blazer LaMarcus Aldridge, but no relation to Liverpool and Ireland legend John Aldridge), on the bench.
The Timbers took advantage of the space offered, dominating early possession, but some poor crossing and connectivity let the home side down early on. However, it didn’t take them too long to get on the score-sheet. A headed Diego Valeri goal would once have been described as a rarity – in fact any Timbers headed goal from open play was once about as common as a total eclipse – but this season Valeri has discovered that you don’t have to be built like Alan Gordon to score headers. You just have to have good movement.
Portland’s opener looked pretty basic, swing a cross in – no one marking Valeri, easy goal. But it deserves another look.
Mattocks held the ball up well at the near post drawing 3 defenders, before releasing to Vytas on the left, the Lithuanian’s cross was sweet and Valeri’s finish was assured. But Valeri’s semi-circular run around the box, an early entry before back-pedaling to make his his actual run into the danger area was what made the goal. It was almost like Robbie Keane was still playing in MLS – it is no accident that a midfielder has scored so many goals this season, Valeri plays like a second striker often – and he moves like one.
There was an interesting role reversal early in this game with Blanco often deeper feeding the ball to Nagbe. When an opposing team sits deep enough to tempt even the notoriously box-o-phobic Nagbe into the scoring zone then you know they are truly compacted. Again it was Vytas with the assist, this time just a simple pass into the box. Nagbe curled a beauty, Tim Howard knew exactly where it was going and has been around long enough to not even try to move for those.
It was a similar shot to the goal Nagbe scored on FC Dallas back in 2013 – a 10 goal Nagbe season, now a fleeting memory of youthful ambition.
Colorado looked like a team that just wanted to get back to the Nines hotel, have some dinner and maybe hit up Mary’s Club.
But nothing is that easy in Portland.
Olum let them back into the game and Guzman’s penalty miss kept them there despite their best efforts to get beaten badly.
The Rapids came out in the second half with just slightly more ambition and a proven game-plan in their back pocket. The old ‘stay within one goal of Portland and then bring on Alan Gordon late’ – it has worked many times for San Jose, LA Galaxy and now Colorado, but the Californian could not find an equalizer this time. How a player goes from being the only Timber to ever cut his own log-slice to having his every touch booed by the Timbers Army is quite the testament. Does it say something positive or negative? Maybe both, but at least it says something.
The Timbers held out and have a vital 6 points in the bag that should now result in them making the play-offs. But realistically they have beaten a New York Red Bulls ‘B’ side and a team that hasn’t won at an altitude of less than 5000 feet all season – so tougher times lie ahead. While their away record is definitely better than last season they will now want to target a top 4 place in order to ensure a play-off campaign that lasts longer than one road game.
It was a surreal end to the game with players waiting to pick up their log-slices while Dairon Asprilla lay prone on the ground with medical staff around him. Even a vigorous chorus of ‘F$5k Seattle’ from the Timbers Army did not stir him – but Porter told reporters he may just have been dehydrated following a bout with the flu.
Getting to MLS play-offs is just about proving you can beat the bad teams – next stop for Portland is an away game in Seattle, a place where they are still searching for their first regular season victory. Any points from that encounter would perhaps speak to their ability to go into play-offs more in expectation than hope.
The full gallery from ProstAmerika’s ‘most handsome photog team in MLS’ can be found here.