Play in the first MLS Thanksgiving Day game? Check. Knock off the top seed in the West courtesy of a 90th-minute winner from a center back? Check. Host the Western Conference Final with a berth to a third MLS Cup Final on the line? Oh definitely, check.
It’s been quite the last few days for the Portland Timbers, eh?
Back in Portland but still singing and dancing pic.twitter.com/GmBU0DvDp8— Portland Timbers (@TimbersFC) November 26, 2021
That celebration of course doesn’t happen if the Timbers didn’t beat Colorado first. Sure, Larrys Mabiala’s 90th-minute winner will grab the headlines but the real headline should be that Portland outplayed the Rapids in the second half and were the more deserving team on the day.
Portland’s second-half performance, especially in light of the circumstances, highlighted that this is a team built for putting in its best work in the postseason and winning despite everything that is stacked against them.
Those circumstances were not insignificant. Before they lost their best player (more on that in a bit), they had to overcome a rapid Rapids attack that looked determined to cross Portland to death.
The “bend but don’t break” ethos that Portland’s back line has shown all year was on full display in the first half as Colorado registered nine shots to Portland’s two. Some good ol’ stellar goalkeeping from Steve Clark, a dose of strong center back play, and a dash of poor Colorado finishing allowed the Timbers’ to weather the storm. Credit is due to the back four for enduring the siege and for setting the team up to go win the game in the second half.
I also think credit is due to head coach Giovanni Savarese for this one and, in particular, for that second half. His squad was squarely up against it in the first half. As Mabiala referenced after the game, the combination of a quick turnaround and playing at altitude made adjusting to the game a real challenge in the opening forty-five minutes.
Savarese wasn’t exactly pleased with the first-half performance but the Timbers were able to keep a clean sheet which was something the manager emphasized the importance of before the match.
Savarese made his halftime adjustments and he got pretty much everything right in the second half.
The Venezuelan identified that Portland gave the ball away too easily in the first half and didn’t have enough passing options they went forward. So Savarese instructed his wingers to start attacking the weak side fullback. He emphasized switching the point of attack with cross-field balls and making more players available for quick combination play in the attacking phase.
“[In] the second half it was the patience that we had to build up, to make sure that we found the opposite fullback,” Savarese said in his postgame press conference. “We were able to dribble inside, connect through the lines to try to get in behind to make sure that there were always players available to control, pass and switch to the opposite side.”
It worked to a tee. Colorado’s fullbacks were pinned for most of the second half and Portland’s wingers and fullbacks found much more room to operate and had more options going forward. The Timbers’ second-half success was evident shown in the statistics. Portland registered 10 shots in the second half while Colorado managed only one. The Timbers were the better team in the second half, both on the field and on paper.
What made that second-half performance all the more impressive was that it was done without Sebastian Blanco.
Without Blanco, the Timbers aren’t as good of a team, full stop. When he pulled up on Thursday, just as I felt in the first round but unfortunately worse, my stomach sank and I thought I would watch Portland’s chances sink right with it. But after Blanco went down, Portland continued to play well.
The caveat of “expected goals don’t tell the whole story” applies but take a look at Portland’s xG from the second half, particularly after Blanco is subbed out (the red circle):
Rather than crater, the Timbers' attack continued to rev up. They generated more scoring chances, limited Colorado’s attack, and eventually grabbed the winner - all without their best player.
Overcoming adversity is a key part of any postseason run and the Timbers did just that. Portland continued to play well after losing Blanco and I would argue that’s something Portland has done maybe once or twice all year. Doing that in the playoffs against the top seed in the West is darned impressive.
It doesn’t get any easier from here. The Timbers will face one of the hottest teams in the playoffs without Blanco or Dairon Asprilla. Despite playing at home, they are faced with one heck of a tall task.
But time and time again, this team proves that they are built for success at this point in the season. So if we’ve learned anything from this past week and entire year - doubt this team at your own peril.
Stats, Stems, and Leaves
- Josecarlos Van Rankin was successful on only 19% of his pressures on Thursday (oof) but completed seven progressive carries and five progressive passes (both mark second-highest on the team - ooh!).
- Yimmi Chara has 1.77 expected goals (according to MLS Soccer) and zero goals through two postseason matches. That’s, uh, pretty wild.
- I absolutely love the “The Call From the Booth” videos that the Timbers’ social media team has been putting out (it helps that Portland keeps giving Jake Zivin and Liam Ridgewell amazing goals to call).
Moment in the Shade
Many plaudits could be handed out for many Timbers for their Thanksgiving display. Mabiala continued his clutch postseason performances, Van Rankin recovered well after getting cooked for most of the first half, and Steve Clark did Steve Clark things and saved Portland’s turkey.
But we have to reserve a special place to recognize the warrior that is Sebastian Blanco.
Thursday might be the last time Blanco sees the field for the Timbers for the rest of the year. He has been ruled out for Saturday and if Portland should advance it looks as though he won’t be ready for MLS Cup.
He also confirmed that Blanco would be out for this weekend’s match and implied that it was unlikely but possible he could make it back for the MLS Cup Final if the Timber’s advance. #rctid— William Conwell (@williamconwell) November 29, 2021
It was absolutely gutting to see the shots of Blanco on the sidelines - especially after all that he has already overcome in 2021.
If Blanco’s year is done, however, it will be remembered as perhaps one of his greatest for the Timbers. Not necessarily for the box scores but more for what he brought to the team and how he almost single-handedly revived Portland’s season.
It’s no small exaggeration to say that Portland’s rise this year began once Blanco returned to his fullest form. The offensive verve, threat and emotional lift he brought to the pitch lit a fire under the team and they’ve ridden that fire all the way to Western Conference Final.
None of that happens if Blanco doesn’t overcome his ACL injury, a setback (or two) in his recovery process, and an abdominal injury in the first round of the playoffs. He has smashed every challenge that has been put in his way all year. It’s the cruelest of luck that Thursday might be just one too many for Seba this season.
Even if he’s not standing with them on the pitch, however, you best believe that wherever Blanco is on Saturday he will be doing the most he can to help will the Timbers over the line yet again.