National Writer: Charles Boehm

Portland Timbers solve Austin FC in rain-soaked Rose City chess match

A loud, rainy night at Providence Park is both a trial and a thrill for MLS teams, and on Saturday night it was Austin FC’s setting for a firm early test of their euphoric start to 2022.

The central Texans were riding high after back-to-back blowout home wins in the season’s first two weeks, and this visit to the defending Western Conference champions turned out to be both a reality check and proof of concept for Josh Wolff and his side.

The Timbers’ taut 1-0 win, their first of the season and the end of Austin’s perfect start, turned on one key moment – Bill Tuiloma’s powerful set-piece header in the 62nd minute – while showcasing what this duo figure to bring to the Western Conference’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs race in the months ahead.

“We spoke about the fact that this game was crucial for us, because by winning, you will make sense [of] two ties that we were able to get at the beginning, in the[first] two matches,” Portland boss Giovanni Savarese said afterward.

“We put a lot of work into this game, and we’re playing against a good team. Austin is a much-improved team this season, I think we gave them a little too much respect the first half. But in the second half, we were very good. We were very good. We pressured them, we won balls, we could have scored more goals.”

HIGHLIGHTS: Portland Timbers vs. Austin FC | March 12, 2022

Last week Steve Cherundolo called it “a clash of two styles of football” when his LAFC side dueled the Timbers to a draw in Los Angeles, and the philosophical lines were drawn similarly here.

“It was an entertaining match. I think it was two teams playing, showing what each one was about,” ATX coach Josh Wolff said afterward. “Always good to play in this stadium, great energy, great atmosphere. It was combative, I think there were half-chances on both sides. I liked our presentation, I liked the way we stepped into this game, the way we competed.

“This is a physical game,” he added later. “It was going to be a difficult opponent, a very experienced opponent in a difficult element.”

Wolff has stuck to his meticulous, proactive, positional-play ethos through thick and thin during this expansion project, and the past two weeks gave us some pulsating glimpses of the payoff. Here Gio Savarese’s tenacious, transition-oriented system provided an engaging foil, the two managers probing and provoking with a series of tactical tweaks.

“Austin’s a good team. They’ve scored a lot of goals in their last two games and it’s a team that loves to play football and loves to move the ball quick,” said Tuiloma, man of the match not only for his winner but his committed defending, highlighted by a late headed clearance off the goal line to preserve the three points.

“We have to be compact, be composed and press them at the right times to make them make those difficult decisions where we can take the ball off them. In the second half I feel like we did that, we had more confidence pressing them and making make them make difficult decisions under pressure … that’s how we got the win.”

The battles grew quite granular in certain phases, as both teams sought to exploit individual matchups and gain leverage through specific patterns of play: Wolff looking to isolate Cecilio Dominguez 1v1 against Timbers rookie fullback Justin Rasmussen, for example, or Dairon Asprilla and the Chara brothers racing into the open spaces ATX tended to leave when throwing numbers forward to advance their buildups.

“We put a lot more urgency in the second half, and we corrected a situation that they were trying to find a space behind our fullback,” noted Savarese of one such finer detail. “We didn’t drag our fullback out with their winger, who was getting wider in order to have the midfielder running into the space in behind our fullback. So we corrected that in the second half and I thought that we looked a lot more solid."

These are just the sort of occasions that Wolff and his squad will have to experience and eventually overcome in order to be taken seriously by the best in the West. There was a distinct element of quirky luck when they somehow managed to steamroll the Timbers in two of their three meetings last year, yet Austin’s identity has since grown clearer and more instinctive, and their collective sense of purpose was tangible in the Rose City.

“We knew we’d have the ball probably a bit more than Portland and I thought we managed the game in a pretty good way,” said Wolff. “We didn’t give up a whole lot, unfortunately we gave up one, and we weren’t able to take our opportunities on the other side. But the maturity, I think, is what I liked the most … there's plenty of positives for us to grow on in this one.”

That journey continues with another similarly rugged matchup in a week’s time: Seattle Sounders FC will visit Q2 Stadium for a nationally-televised duel next Sunday (4:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).