Well, folks: It looks like the Portland Timbers are doing it yet again.
With their 1-0 victory Saturday night over visiting Minnesota United, the Timbers have amassed a four-game win streak, vaulted themselves up into fifth in the Western Conference, and are getting results when the games matter the most. It’s been a calling card for Portland for years now, and especially so in recent seasons under Giovanni Savarese.
Still, despite the result, Savarese is under no illusions that the first half of Saturday’s win was not up to the team’s standards.
“I thought our first half wasn’t enough regarding the things we wanted to do, and how we wanted to move the ball, and we didn’t have the fluidity of play,” Savarese shared postgame. Portland was thoroughly outplayed in the opening forty-five minutes at home, as they struggled offensively. Minnesota outshot them 13-4 in the opening frame, and amassed 1.3 expected goals to Portland’s 0.4, according to MLS Soccer.
Still, the first half remained scoreless — due in very large part to the continued fantastic play of Timbers keeper Aljaz Ivacic. “Aljaz did his job to be strong in the goal,” Savarese expressed when reflecting on the first half. Ivacic amassed five saves on the night, each one more impressive than the last. His point-blank stop (with an assist from Claudio Bravo) stands out as emblematic of the role he played in keeping Portland in the game in the first half.
Jazzy, as Ivacic has come to be known by, has time and time again come up huge to keep Portland in games. It has been a sterling season for the Slovenian, who leads the league in saves, and according to him the reason for that success is straightforward: “It’s very simple: Hard work. Nothing else.”
Ivacic has asserted in the past that he is the best goalkeeper in MLS. And according to him, his huge performances recently are validating that claim: “I said that I am the best, and I am proving that.” Through his key interventions, he once again helped the Timbers to a massive win, as well as their first clean sheet in two months.
None of Ivacic’s saves would have mattered if Portland didn’t turn things around in the second half, however. The Timbers knew it, too, as was reflected by the mood in the halftime locker room. “To be honest it was a very quiet halftime,” Ivacic revealed. “I was a little concerned about it.”
“But it looks like that’s a good thing,” Ivacic then explained, as his team came out with renewed purpose in the second half.
At the start of that half, Savarese made a tactical shift. He moved Dairon Asprilla from striker to the right wingback spot, pushed Santiago Moreno further up the field, and shifted Yimmi Chara into a false-nine role up top.
The move was done in an effort to bring more players into the attack for Portland, as well as free up space up top after makeshift center forward Asprilla got bullied by Minnesota’s three centerbacks. “They were just tugging him, and it became a little difficult for him to find the right spaces,” Savarese said of Asprilla in the first half. “And then we didn’t have enough guys attacking. In some moments, we dropped too many players to positions that we felt didn’t require them to be so low.”
The move paid off, as Portland looked like a much more dynamic attacking side. “The second half was different. We played much better, we moved the ball well, switched points of attack, and we didn’t allow [Minnesota] to get in such good areas,” Gio said afterward of the results of the switch.
Moreno’s play in particular was impressive, as his more advanced role allowed him the space and freedom to dribble right at the heart of the Loons’ defense, opening up space for other attackers. In validation of his increased influence, it was interplay between Moreno and Y. Chara that won the corner kick to result in Portland’s winner.
Moreno’s service was absolutely sublime, and all it needed was just the flick of approval from the top of Asprilla’s head. Savarese was full of praise for Asprilla’s effort afterward, sharing, “Well done to him. He deserves it. He’s been working very hard.”
But Gio was just as quick to point out this recent run of results for the Timbers has been the result of the team uniting, and the group collectively raising their game: “We always say that there is no one single player that is better than the team together.”
The unity netted Portland three absolutely crucial points to boost their claim to a playoff spot — while simultaneously damaging an opponent’s standing. “A well deserved three points — actually six points, because we took 3 away from Minnesota,” Savarese identified afterward.
The Timbers’ position is improved, but they are by no means out of the woods yet. Portland has three games left, and the standings are still tight. “Three more matches; huge games”, Savarese shared about the road ahead. “One [game] at a time as I said, and we have to continue to work.”
With four straight wins and momentum at their backs, the Timbers appear ready to put in that work. And as they mount yet another late-season charge, Portland looks to be showing the resilience needed to be a playoff team when the dust settles.
“The Timbers have always been a hard team to play against,” Ivacic said. “And I think that makes us different.”