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Timbers left with bittersweet feeling after victory over Whitecaps

Despite the win, Jaroslaw Niezgoda’s injury makes Portland’s 1-0 victory over Vancouver hard to celebrate.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Last night’s 1-0 victory for the Portland Timbers over the Vancouver Whitecaps was the definition of bittersweet. Yes, Portland winning the match gave them sole possession of first place in the Western Conference. Yes, the Seattle Sounders fell to third in the process thanks their loss to the Colorado Rapids. From a standings perspective, there was no better way to start the week.

But it’s all clouded by the fact that towards the very end of the match, two key players for Portland went down and only one got up. While Diego Valeri popped right up after momentarily going to the ground, the Timbers training staff brought out the stretcher for Jaroslaw Niezgoda, who was visibly struggling with what appeared to be a lower body injury. Head coach Giovanni Savarese didn’t mince words after the match when asked about Niezgoda’s condition.

“Not good,” Savarese said. “We’ll see. We’ll find out a little bit more later, but as of now it’s not very positive. We’ll see.”

That’s not at all what you want to hear for a variety of reasons, not least among them being that depth is critical in a year like this where every game comes in a condensed schedule. That’s the second huge blow this team has suffered this season, the first being Sebastian Blanco tearing his ACL back in September. When a teammate gets injured like that, all you can do is hope the news is better than it seems.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know what the situation is yet with Jaro,” defender Jorge Villafana said. “I hope it’s nothing bad, but you never want to see a teammate go down like that.”

Niezgoda’s injury stings also because it put a damper on what was a solid victory for Portland. It wasn’t a five-goal onslaught like they had against the LA Galaxy, but it was arguably a more important kind of victory. It was important not just because it catapulted them to the top of the table — although that’s certainly the main reason — but more importantly because of how they did it.

After Yimmi Chara scored the lone goal of the game in the 61st minute, Vancouver ramped up the offensive pressure. They found numerous opportunities in the attacking third and created danger in the box. But Portland held strong, either with solid play from the back line or a critical save from Steve Clark. The fact that they didn’t allow that equalizer after so many matches that have ended with Portland dropping two points at the worst possible time was a great sign.

“It was very important for us to make sure that we finished strong,” Savarese said. “We made sure that we protected a 1-0, that we protected the result, that we protected the three points and the guys did a fantastic job to play a full and a very, very mature performance.”

And even though it happened before Niezgoda’s injury, Yimmi Chara’s goal showed just how dangerous this club can be even without the Polish striker. The ball seemed to be moving on a string as it found its way all the way from Valeri to Villafana and then to Chara. It was a truly class goal, and it proved once again that on any given night just about anyone could score for Portland.

“[Vancouver] did a good job to close spaces, to have a block together, to move from one side to the other side and not allow you to find too many spaces,” Savarese said. “That’s why it was very important for us to make sure that we move the ball, that we found those spaces by moving the ball from one side to the other.”

It all paid off with a victory. But that cloud of Niezgoda’s injury is going to loom over them at least for the foreseeable future. They have the manpower and the resolve to not let it derail their season, but as per usual, they can only do so one game at a time. Now they’re about to play the team that just helped vault them into first: the Colorado Rapids. And they know it won’t be easy.

“The game on Wednesday is going to be a hard game,” Yimmi Chara said through a translator. “They are playing very well. The comeback has been difficult, but we have been doing better each time and we need to keep fighting so that we can get into those first positions.”