Portland Timbers flying high after topping LAFC in Group F and believe there's still more to come

LAFCvsPOR  - July 23 - Game action

For the Portland Timbers, it's mission accomplished coming out of the Group Stage of the MLS is Back Tournament.

In a tough Group F that included mighty LAFC, as well as LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo, it was Portland that came out in first place after Thursday's 2-2 draw against the Black & Gold. That was always one of the goals beyond just advancing, according to Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese, who said after the match that he was pleased with how his team managed to weather the storm and get the result after conceding twice in a four-minute span in the first half.

"We knew that it was going to be a very difficult group for us coming in," Savarese said in his post-match press conference. "One of the things that we wanted to accomplish, first of all, was winning the group. We are very content to have done that right now against three very difficult teams. We knew today that LAFC was going to a very difficult team to play against. I felt the first 30 minutes we had the better of the play, we definitely moved the ball well, we were dangerous, we were the better team. The last 15 minutes in the first half, unfortunately our legs became more tired, they started finding more space, they became more dangerous.

"I think the second half it was an open game that went a little bit back and forth, so we're content to be able to get this point that put us on top of the table in Group F and we'll continue to plan going forward."

It wouldn't have been possible without the second-half heroics of forward Jeremy Ebobisse, who entered as a substitute and scored the leveler in the 81st minute with Portland trailing 2-1. It continued what has been a torrid tournament thus far for the 23-year-old, who has now netted in three straight games. 

"I think it's a team effort," Ebobisse said. "I know that's cliche and strikers say it all the time, but ultimately when you look at the service I've got in this tournament, it's been good. Luckily I've been sharp in front of goal thus far. I think the team's in a really good spot right now: Level-headed, winning a tough group, so we should go in the next few games with a lot of confidence."

Ebobisse still isn't a finished product, but right now he's certainly playing like a carry-the-load MLS striker. Savarese said he's noticed the strides in Ebobisse's game since preseason, and even dating back to last year when he scored 11 goals in 25 starts.

"[Ebobisse] has been developing very well," Savarese said. "We've put a lot of time into making sure that he continues to grow from two years ago when I arrived, 2018, we knew that he had talent but he needed to mature, he needed to continue to develop. 

"Last year he showed everyone that he made a huge improvement, playing every single match, scoring around 11 goals. This year he brought even a higher level. So credit to him. He's hungry, he wants to do well. He's very critical of himself and wants to continue to develop and we're there to support him and make sure we continue to help him become a better player."

With the first-place finish in the bag, Portland's focus now turns to a Knockout Stage matchup against FC Cincinnati on July 28 (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada). Savarese said when he looks at the Group Stage, he's pleased with the seven-point haul, but added that he still feels that there's another gear his team can hit going forward.

"First of all these points are important for the season," he said. "Looking at it with that view, it's important for us to have been able to get seven points in our group. And not only that, the seven points are against teams that are in our conference. So, we look at it in a very positive way. Second, we want to be competitive. We want to play every match in a way that every time we step on the field we want to win. But the main goal for us was to make sure we won the group and I was very proud of the players. I think we can continue to grow, to be better."