Sunday’s regular season finale for the Portland Timbers ended like a lot of matches have Portland, but also opposite of a lot of them. The script stayed the same, but the actors were flipped. Instead of Portland scoring early and being the dominant team only to drop points at the end of the match, the Timbers got to be the squad scoring the late equalizer as Jorge Villafana hit the 90th minute header to make it 1-1 Portland.
Unfortunately, that didn’t help Portland’s playoff prospects. On a Decision Day where they needed the win and a loss from Sporting Kansas City to take first place, they only got a tie. On top of that, both Sporting KC and the Seattle Sounders earned victories on Sunday, giving them first and second respectively. Third place isn’t anything to scoff at, especially during a season that was anything but regular. But as competitors, you would always choose finishing on top over anything else.
“We didn’t want to finish third, we wanted to finish first,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “So there’s a always a desire to be better, but for the amount of things that we have gone through this year, incredible, the group, and how much they have put in.”
It’s certainly been a tough year, but the Timbers have made the most of it. I noted this in the preview for Sunday’s match, but it’s worth reiterating that in a year with so much adversity, Portland has always seemed to make the most of it. They won the MLS is Back Tournament back in August, lost arguably their best player in September, put together a five-game winning streak that bled into October, and now in November they have clinched the homefield advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs. When putting it all in perspective, there’s plenty to be proud of.
“The fact that we can host this match is very important to us,” Savarese said. “We have to think one game at a time. We cannot be ahead of ourselves. We know that every game is going to be very difficult, but the mentality of the guys is very strong, and especially for being one of the two teams that played the most games this season ... it is a moment to be proud of the group and how much everyone has contributed to be where we are.”
Getting contributions from everyone will be vital when the playoffs start. If anything, this match against LAFC showed how important it is for this team to have their Best XI available to them. Without Diego Chara, the first half was nightmarish for Portland. The backline really struggled with LAFC’s press, and having someone like Chara to connect the defense to the offense would’ve relieved a lot of pressure for the Timbers. Goalkeeper Steve Clark noted there were other factors that affected their ability to build out of the back (such as the high winds), but having Chara in the midfield surely would’ve helped.
The important thing is that they adjusted and were able to take advantage of opportunities. They were able to get Eryk Williamson more in the middle of the field and drop Cristhian Paredes deeper to help out. The fact that they were able to take a game where they were being thoroughly beat and adjust to turn the tables at the half shows the resilience of the club — and Villafana’s goal was the reward.
“I think when you kind of score late, it feels more like a win than a loss,” Clark said. “Obviously, you don’t get the points, so I mean I think that’s spot on. These games are tight, and the West, there’s a lot of good teams. It’s about getting on the other end of these draws and we’ve been getting better as a team.”
Now, after a long, condensed season, they have some time to prepare for FC Dallas, who earned the sixth seed in the West this year. Dallas is a team that Portland haven’t played at all in 2020, with all the matches in the restart being pretty regional. It makes it a bit of a mystery how these teams stack up against one another. For the Timbers, while they acknowledged that it’ll take extra preparation and training, the process stays mostly the same.
“I think we are not going to do anything different,” Villafana said. “I think we’re going to focus on ourselves, focus on what we want to do, focus on what we need to do on that game and when the time comes, we’re going to be prepared for them.”
In the end, that’s all they can do: Take it one game at a time and look for advantages wherever they may be. It’s how they were able to find the equalizer against LAFC and how they’ve been able to adjust to a year where adjusting has been a necessity. And now they’re back as the three seed, and the last time they were in the third spot they were able to win the whole thing. That’s one script I think Portland would like to see stay the same.