PORTLAND, Ore. – The scenes couldn’t have been more different.
Three weeks ago, the Portland Timbers were walking off the pitch at a nearly empty StubHub Center after having just played lowly Chivas USA to a 1-1 draw, obviously dejected with having squandered a good chance at three points.
That result, coupled with two months of struggles, dragged the Timbers down near the red line of the Western Conference standings, and the team that had finished the first half of the season tied for first place saw their playoff spot in question.
But on Sunday, the scene was one of jubilation as the Timbers walked off the pitch at JELD-WEN Field in a torrential downpour to the chants of an elated crowd celebrating their second consecutive 1-0 victory, this time over two-time defending MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy.
Now with four games to go, the Timbers are right back in the mix for not only the conference’s top spot but also the Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the top team in the regular season.
“It’s a big, big step,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said after the win over LA. “Obviously each step is important, but this was a big one. Our goal is to not just limp into the playoffs, but get in in a good position, hopefully in the top three and avoid the play-in game. From that standpoint it was a big step, but it was also a big step for this club moving forward, to continue to prove that we can beat anybody.”
The victory was yet more evidence that the Timbers’ two-and-a-half month swoon is nothing but a memory.
Following the Chivas draw three weeks ago, Portland were left trailing their next two opponents in the standings. Now after beating both the Colorado Rapids and LA Galaxy by the score of 1-0, Portland are four points clear of both teams and nipping at the heels of conference leaders Real Salt Lake (No. 1) and the Seattle Sounders (No. 2).
So what did the Timbers do to flip the script?
“I agree something changed, and I thought that game was good for us,” Timbers forward Darlington Nagbe said about the Chivas USA draw. “We saw that we let three points slip away over there and we thought we should have gotten three points. So we just wanted to come home and make sure we got three points out of the two games following that.”
For one, Portland started playing defense again.
With veteran center back Mamadou “Futty” Danso rejoining Pa Modou Kah in central defense after missing time with a broken foot, Porter has called his team’s last two defensive performance “mature.” It has also helped to have veteran right back Jack Jewsbury back from injury as well, Porter said.
In the last two games, the Timbers have allowed just three shots on goal. They held the highly potent Galaxy attacking combo of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane to just one shot combined.
“Mostly we were just very organized defensively,” Porter said. “I thought we pressed enough in the front part of our shape that we didn’t’ allow them to really get a ton of the ball in terms of quality actions. But also the back part of our team didn’t open up a lot of space.”
Porter also said there was no doubt from his group coming into the game, a matchup critical for both teams’ playoff lives.
“This is not a surprising result, at least for everyone of us in the locker room,” Porter said. “It may be for other people. This team has a real belief that we can do something special.”
Dan Itel covers the Portland Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.