Center back Larrys Mabiala scored in the 90th minute to send the Portland Timbers to the Western Conference Final. The Timbers upset the top-seeded Colorado Rapids 1-0 in Colorado. Mabiala has now scored in consecutive playoff matches after not finding the net throughout the entirety of the regular season.
The opening stages of the game were dictated by the home side. Colorado came out assertive and direct and looked to build down the wings in the early minutes. Josecarlos Van Rankin struggled early to deal with Colorado’s attackers and the Rapids were able to launch a number of dangerous crosses into the box.
Colorado came close to scoring in the opening ten minutes via a corner kick when Auston Trusty found himself free at the far post. Somehow he flashed his header wide of the post. It was an early warning sign for the Timbers and an important reminder of Colorado’s set-piece prowess as well as how narrow the margins were in this game.
It was tough sledding for the Timbers to build any sort of coherent attacking move early in the game. Colorado were too good at closing space and cutting off passing lanes and Portland were too slow in moving the ball and in possession. Too often in the opening thirty minutes, the likes of Sebastian Blanco, Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Dairon Asprilla were left isolated in the attacking end with no passing options and they would lose the ball.
Meanwhile, the Rapids just kept coming. Steve Clark was the main saving grace for the Timbers in the first half. He made several crucial saves including one on a point-blank shot in the 28th minute. Clark would again be called into action, making a fantastic reaction save in the 39th minute off a bullet header right on the doorstep.
Despite Colorado outshooting the Timbers 9-2 in the first half, including being outshot in shots on target 3-0, the Timbers managed to keep the ball out of the net. Clark was a big reason why and so was the Portland back line which did just enough to prevent Colorado from striking on set pieces.
Offensively, however, Portland were not able to generate much in the opening frame. They were unable to consistently find space in possession and were reduced to launching speculative cross after cross into the box. If they were to have any chance of scoring in the game, their attackers would need to do more to find more space - especially Sebastian Blanco.
The second half began with Portland showing more pep in their step, especially offensively. Niezgoda dropped deep and was able to help link play more and he was able to flick the ball forward for Yimmi Chara on one occasion early.
A similar sort of play sprung Sebastian Blanco in the 50th minute but then disaster struck for the Timbers. Blanco was able to race past his defender and got off a shot with his left foot. Almost immediately thereafter, Blanco pulled up clutching his left hamstring and went down, signaling to the sideline for a substitution.
In tears, Blanco had to be helped off the field and he was replaced by Santiago Moreno. Portland’s most important and most dangerous player had suffered an injury and would be unable to play a part in the rest of the match. Seeing Blanco with his head in his hands, having to be consoled by head coach Giovanni Savarese, was an absolutely brutal sight for Timbers fans to witness.
Despite losing their talisman, the Timbers stayed determined and found themselves as the team in the ascendency during the middle period of the second half. Portland showed more cohesion in winning the ball back and were able to put the Rapids on their heels while controlling the game for most of the second half.
The waves of Portland pressure kept coming and it earned them a golden chance in the 65th minute. Off a corner kick, the Timbers were able to recycle the ball toward Yimmi Chara, who got the ball into Niezgoda at the doorstep. Niezgoda made a nifty touch to lay the ball off to Van Rankin at the near post, who fired off a shot that appeared destined for the far side netting. Somehow, a Rapids defender managed to find the right spot and cleared the ball off the line.
It was the closest the Timbers had come to breaking the deadlock and it was reflective of the increased urgency and elevated quality of play that the Timbers put in in the second half.
As the game entered the final quarter hour (of regulation), the Rapids started to slowly find their footing again and ratcheted up the pressure on the Portland goal. They started to press numbers higher and flooded bodies in when they had set-piece opportunities.
That flooding of bodies finally made space for the Timbers to counter and the Timbers nearly took advantage in the 77th minute. Off a Colorado corner, Portland broke via Yimmi Chara and Felipe Mora. Mora found Asprilla wide, who lofted a cross-field switch for Santiago Moreno. Moreno laid the ball in for Mora but the ball was cleared and the opportunity was lost.
Portland had another good chance on the break in the 84th minute when Diego Chara sprung the break and found Mora out wide. Mora lofted a ball to the back post, which Yimmi Chara was inches from redirecting into the net but he was just a touch too slow and Yimmi could only send it into the outside of the net.
Still deadlocked going into the 90th minute, the game appeared destined for extra time but Larrys Mabiala had other ideas.
The Timbers earned a corner kick off a Yimmi Chara shot from a tight angle. The initial corner was deflected very high up in the air but it was kept alive by Cristhian Paredes. He was able to head the ball to Mora, who did enough to keep the ball alive right in front of the goal. Mabiala was first to the ball and rifled the ball into the upper corner of the net.
In the last minute of regular time, the Timbers found their breakthrough goal. 1-0 Portland.
Because this is the Timbers, and because nothing can ever be easy, there would be one last flashpoint in the game. In stoppage time, Asprilla appeared to put his hands on Braian Galvan’s face as the ball went out of play. Galvan went down and referee Ted Unkel immediately went to his back pocket and showed Asprilla a red card.
Despite the extension of stoppage time, and despite having to defend down a man, the Timbers were able to see it out. The final chance was cleared, the full-time whistle blew, and the Timbers knocked off the top seed in the West to advance to the Western Conference Final.
It was a just dessert for a Timbers team that endured in the first half and came out the stronger team in the second half. The question marks still remain about Blanco’s status and what the team is to do to manage Asprilla’s suspension for the next game of the playoffs, but the Portland Timbers can celebrate their Thanksgiving knowing that they live to fight another day and will have a shot to play for a berth in their third MLS Cup Final. Celebrate thanks, indeed.