National Writer: Charles Boehm

Injury-wracked Portland’s “big heart” sustains them through “moment of difficulty”

Portland celebration vs LA

The collision was grisly, painful just to behold from a distance, as Derrick Williams clattered into Andy Polo shortly before halftime at Providence Park. The resulting red card was inescapable, and fluttered wind into the Portland Timbers’ sails to speed them past the LA Galaxy on Saturday by an ultimately comfortable 3-0 margin, paced by Felipe Mora’s second-half brace.

“A very important result at home that we needed,” in the words of head coach Giovanni Savarese, one that nudges Portland up to .500 in league play, though he and the rest of the Rose City would likely trade it for a healthy Polo in a heartbeat. The Peruvian was serenaded by the Timbers Army as he crutched his way off the pitch, his right leg immobilized in a heavy brace, looking very much like the PTFC first team’s 10th injury victim of the young season.

“So proud. So proud of the players, so proud of the mentality that the guys have in order to manage this moment of difficulty, because we have, as everybody knows, so many players out injured,” said Savarese after what he called a “very mature” performance. “And these games are not easy. But the mentality’s been very good.

“The commitment to perform what we work on during the week is what a coach always wants, and I think it shows what this team is all about. It’s a united group that will fight, doesn't matter who goes on the field.”

It’s been a “next one up” kind of year in Portland, where they’ve already shoehorned plenty of emotions into three months or so, from the highs and lows of a Concacaf Champions League campaign to the injury bug that’s taking such a toll.

“We have a strong locker room, a big heart, and everyone that steps up is ready to compete,” said the ageless Diego Valeri, who crisply dispatched a late penalty kick against LA to vanquish the memory of his costly double-PK miss vs. Seattle on May 9. “Everyone knows how to perform in their role.”

Even the most conservative estimate would list half an XI's worth of Timbers starters on the sidelines at present, including Sebastian Blanco (still hauling himself back to full fitness after last year’s ACL tear), Diego Chara, Larrys Mabiala and Steve Clark. Their teammates’ ability to remain competitive and keep churning out results speaks to the depth and variety that GM/president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson has carefully cultivated on the roster.

It requires Savarese and his staff to maintain a delicate balance when most are available, and a godsend in moments like this.

“Lately, there's been a lot of rotations in the team,” said Mora. “We have a lot of quality on top and at midfielder and forward; we have a lot of players. And since we are very rotating, I'm taking my chances whenever I can get them. I like the healthy competition with the rest of my teammates, and it's showing on the field.”

Valeri has won one MLS Cup and reached the final of another during his storied Timbers career; it’s noteworthy that he believes the current group may turn out to be the best collective of the bunch.

“We had frustration in the Concacaf, and right away we changed the page. And we know that we needed points to go higher on the table,” he said. “Even besides the injuries, all that bad energy, the team is showing that for me is this year is one of the best locker rooms we have in my whole stay here in Portland. It’s a good mix between young people and experienced guys, and all looking forward to to be a stronger team, every game. And that's amazing.”