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Six Degrees: Digging Deep

Portland 2, LAFC 1 — Minnesota 2, Portland 1

MLS: Portland Timbers at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

1) On my drive home from last Wednesday’s game against LAFC, someone on the radio post-game show said something like “the Timbers were clearly the better team out there,” and I laughed out loud. Were they kidding? Yes, we’d just won the game 2-1, but to my eyes, LAFC was far and away the better team all night long. Well, maybe not the first two minutes. And the last two minutes. But the whole time in between? Yeah, LAFC was the better team.

Here’s what happened in those first two minutes.

Gorgeous bit of skill from Diego Valeri here. He waves at Josecarlos Van Rankin to show he’s open, reads the flight of the ball better than his defender, chests it down to his feet, takes a quick look around to see if there’s anyone to pass to, then whacks it through the keeper’s legs to give us an early lead.

2) So that was in the second minute and staked us a 1-0 lead, but things went pretty solidly downhill from there. LAFC didn’t destroy us or anything, but it felt like we spent the next 90 minutes on the back foot. Here’s their goal.

That cross is perfect. Like, atom-perfect. Utterly unstoppable.

The thing is, that exquisite cross wasn’t a one-time thing. They had a bunch of nice crosses to a bunch of targets. As I said at the start, I thought LAFC dominated the game. If you disagree, please let me know down in comments, but here’s a graphic that might influence your opinion a bit.

As you can see, expected goals (xG) for the game was LAFC 2.3, Portland 0.4. Our highest probability shot was in roughly the 20th minute and had an xG of around 0.18. I’m seeing about seven LAFC shots with a higher xG, which matches what I saw in the moment. Watching the game live, it seemed like LAFC could’ve hung five goals on us. They have an outstanding press, which forces turnovers, which are immediately turned into attacks with multiple runners in the box. It’s actually pretty fun to watch (as long as they’re not playing the Timbers). It reminds me of how RBNY played during the Jesse Marsch/BWP heyday. The high press style might be my favorite style of play.

But despite how good LAFC looked, the Timbers held strong. They had to scramble, but they held strong against attack after attack after attack. In truth, that’s how our games against LAFC usually go. We dig deep, hold strong, and somehow find a way.

3) Did all the heroic defending make me optimistic? Not really. I’d sort of given up on winning, to be honest. I figured a 1-1 draw was about the best we could hope for, and I was mostly okay with that.

But you know who wasn’t okay with that? Giovanni Savarese. He went all in for the three points at home. Take out Diego Valeri and Diego Chara so they could rest for our next game? Shit no. Tell the team to bunker in stoppage time? Shit no. Play for the draw? Shit no. Gio wasn’t playing for a draw. He was waving everyone forward.

And late in stoppage time, on our last attack of the night, we pulled off the miraculous.

Soccer’s a cruel sport, and on this night, it was LAFC getting screwed. Yes, they looked better on the night. Hell, maybe they’re just a better team. But it didn’t matter. The Timbers defense did just enough and our attackers never stopped trying. Somehow, against all odds, we grabbed all three points. It was a genuinely heroic performance.

4) And the heroic performances continued on Saturday in Minnesota. Yes, I know the team lost 2-1, but as losses go, it was pretty heroic, considering what the team was up against. They were still without Claudio Bravo, Eryk Williamson, Andy Polo, and Jaroslaw Niezgoda. They could only play Sebastian Blanco for maybe 10-15 minutes, lest his knee suffer another setback. And all the players that were available? They’d just played an exhaustingly tense game on Wednesday night, had only two days rest, then taken a long plane ride, just so they could play the only team in the league that hadn’t had a mid-week game. A team that, ohbytheway, has taken 21 points in its last 10 games.

With all that in mind, I honestly went into Saturday’s game expecting a loss. I thought we’d play our 3rd string and get handled easily. But no, Gio put out a mostly 1st choice lineup – a tired 1st choice lineup, but still... – and then we somehow went and grabbed an opening goal.

Felipe Mora’s goal here is kinda similar to his goal at the end of the LAFC game, right? Long pass, glancing header, just out of the keeper’s reach. It was our only real chance of the 1st half, but hey, soccer’s a cruel sport. Sometimes one chance can win you the game.

5) From that point on, it was defense, defense, and more defense. Minnesota dominated the chances in the 1st half, then – after the Timbers looked surprisingly frisky for the 10 minutes just after halftime – Minnesota had even more chances in the 2nd half. They pinned their ears back and attacked our goal like it was Helm’s Deep. We fought them off and fought them off and were looking utterly heroic in the effort.

Sadly, in the 74th, Minny finally broke through.

Dario Zuparic has got to do better there. He’s one of the only guys on the field who didn’t play on Wednesday and he’s getting outjumped in the box? C’mon, Zoop. Do better. (The other guy on the field who didn’t play Wednesday was goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic and I’m not entirely happy with his performance here, either.)

6) So, that tied it 1-1, but Minny didn’t stop attacking. They continued to put up chances, our boys continued to be tired, and in the 85th minute, Minny got their second goal.

That’s an exquisite pass, an exquisite first touch, and an exquisite finish. If you’re gonna lose a game, you might as well lose it on an absolutely gorgeous goal.

But despite the final score, I’m having a hard time being angry about this loss. I came into the game expecting a sad, lethargic, whimper of a loss and instead got an action-packed, utterly heroic loss. It’s zero points either way, but at least the boys can hold their heads high. Just like with the LAFC game, they dug deep, they gave everything they had, and that’s something to be proud of.