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One big tree: A sign of life

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On rewriting scripts, pulling together, and perhaps finding a turning point.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

A team that is one of the worst MLS teams on the road statistically. Coming off a series of deflating and disappointing results. Facing a team that just spanked them 6-2, and playing them in their own house.

This was the uphill battle the Portland Timbers faced on Sunday against the Seattle Sounders. The odds were stacked against them. General expectations among the fan base were low for this rivalry rematch. We prepared for the worst.

And so, naturally, the Timbers put in an absolute shift and shocked Seattle by winning 2-0. Just like we all thought they would.

Portland’s revenge in Seattle wasn’t just a good result in its own right. It represented the Timbers seeing everything that was being said and written about the season being dead in the water (cough cough, like I kinda did), and... deciding to just flip the script.

Among the myriad of issues that plagued the Timbers during their matches last week, a main, and quite concerning one, was the lack of commitment to defend pretty much everywhere on the pitch. Defensive rotations were slow, and there was a strong perception that the team was not giving their full effort.

On Sunday, we saw Portland directly address that concern, to great effect. From the jump, the Timbers looked an energized and focused side, and were much quicker to apply pressure and put Seattle on the back foot.

In the first half especially, Portland looked the more cohesive and dangerous team. And crucially, this time they did not shoot themselves in the foot and ruin it. Sebastian Blanco’s opening goal was brought about by taking advantage of a Seattle error, yes. But it can also be seen as a culmination of the work rate and effort Portland had put in on the night. Felipe Mora’s clincher can also be seen as a just reward for a team coming together and staying united to get a result.

And what a result it was. This was Portland’s first away shutout victory since May, and first shutout win of any fashion since mid-July.

As with anything Timbers, it wasn’t perfect. Despite the shutout, Portland’s defense looked shaky, especially in the latter stages of the second half. Sixteen shots conceded, five on goal, pings off various crossbars and goalposts, and salvation by some Steve Clark heroics definitely gave that impression. There is a sizeable portion of the fan base saying a big reason the Timbers won was that they got lucky.

But take into consideration the luck factor the last time these two teams played. Three of Seattle’s goals were scored with a combined expected goals value of 0.08 off three shots, according to MLS Soccer. In other words, the combined likelihood of all of those shots being goals was roughly 8%. One could argue that Seattle had their own share of unlikely luck a few weeks ago down in Portland.

Just like the Sounders did then, the Timbers took full advantage of what they were handed on Sunday. In a season where close calls have inevitably led to multi-goal breakdowns, Portland stayed just resolute enough in their defending and didn’t let the fortuitous moments unnerve them. When they were handed golden scoring opportunities by Seattle's defensive mistakes, they took full advantage and delivered the decisive blow - something that has eluded the Timbers for much of the season. So sure, Portland benefitted from some lucky moments. But they made the most of those opportunities and were lethal when it mattered, and it got them a huge result.

It’s also worth saying that Portland wasn’t exactly giving up golden opportunities to Seattle. The Sounders’ shot chart from Sunday initially looks scary and it very much was in the moment. But I would like to point out that Seattle’s only shots on target (which do not include those that clanked off the blessed posts) were from outside of the 18-yard box - low percentage shots.

That’s... a whole lot of green & gray. But hey- none of them are bolded!

Even with the myriad of headers and deflections and blocks in the box, Seattle still only mustered 0.9 expected goals according to MLS Soccer. That’s the lowest xG number (by the mothership’s metric) Portland has given up since the FC Dallas game in July, and their lowest conceded xG value of the season.

For as much of a canary in the coalmine the underlying numbers have been as a harbinger of Portland’s doom, they should also be taken as an indication of a step in the right direction. Portland was on the benefitting end of a “soccer is just like that, sometimes” game on Sunday. But their cohesion, commitment to defend, and just good ol’ fashioned grit, put them in a position to be the benefactor. And in the context of Portland’s 2021, that’s significant.

Of course, performances will need to continue to improve if Portland seeks to truly turn the season around. The Timbers likely can’t give up 15 shots a game and still get positive results for the rest of the season. Portland’s set-piece defending remains a, uh, big point of concern, and the bunker-n-pray approach is only sustainable for so long. Tactically, there’s still some stuff to fix.

But emotionally? This could be absolutely massive. A result and performance like this flip the script. This team was on the mat and not a lot of us thought they could get up.

It’s not everything, but the building blocks are all there. When many of us thought the season was done and dusted, the Timbers stepped up in perhaps the grandest of moments. Portland has shown a sign of life and the season ain’t over yet.

Stats, Stems, and Leaves

  • The entire night was marred by Eryk Willamson’s injury. On a personal level, it is absolutely brutal for a player who was on track to be a key piece of the USMNT’s qualifying campaign. And for the Timbers, it means they’ve lost one of their most dynamic midfielders for the rest of the season. The road to turning the season around just became a whole hell of a lot harder. Get well soon, Eryk.
  • Felipe Mora now has eight goals on the year and three assists. It’s his best-ever goal-scoring tally in MLS (and he can still add to it). He also notched his career-high third assist on Sunday.
  • Home teams in the Portland-Seattle Cascadia rivalry are 2-9-1 in MLS regular season play going back to the beginning of the 2018 season. Both of those home wins are Portland’s.

Moment in the Shade

I like beating the Sounders. Like, I really do. As a Timbers fan living in Seattle (that’s worth its own article at some point), I get a special kind of joy from beating the Sounders that not many other Timbers fans get to experience.

But none of that compares to how much Sebastian Blanco likes to beat the Sounders. He really likes to beat Seattle.

I am convinced that there are few soccer-related things that this man loves more than raining misery down on opposing fans - specifically Seattle fans. And we saw that special kind of glee on full display Sunday night.

Whether it was Blanco producing this “pick your favorite” masterpiece of a picture...

... or Seba having an eloquent and undoubtedly enlightening conversation with a fan...

... or Blanco sprinting down the sideline after being subbed off to celebrate Mora’s clincher, and then wishing all of the departing fans safe travels - Blanco loves to haunt and taunt the Sounders.

It’s cool to see Blanco return to deliver misfortune to Seattle fans, and it becomes doubly more significant when you realize what it represents. Almost a year ago on that field, Blanco injured his ACL and faced perhaps the lowest point in his career. And now, on that very same field, Blanco is scoring and cheering and antagonizing - all things the Seba we know and love is apt to do when he’s at his best.

It was a significant moment for him and a significant moment for the Timbers. Blanco’s bite and energy and fiery nature on the field have been a galvanizing force for the Timbers in seasons past and it has been something they have sorely lacked this season. One could argue that along with that bite, something the Timbers have been lacking this season has been a true sense of leadership on the field. In Seba’s revamped return, Portland may have found both.