Since Caleb Porter rode into town in 2013, the Portland Timbers have never lacked talent – they’ve just been a bit inconsistent.
Winning MLS Cup last year was, in theory, supposed to fix that. Titles tend to elevate teams, and Portland brought back the vast majority of their championship core. There was plenty of reason to believe that the Timbers, who snuck over the red line late last year before getting hot in the playoffs, would be among the league’s elite for the entire regular season.
It hadn’t quite worked like that heading into Sunday’s match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Portland was just 3-6-3 entering the Cascadia Cup clash at Providence Park, the worst start for a defending Cup champion since 2012.
Their season had been defined in part by a troubling tendency to lose second-half leads. The Timbers spoiled solid starts in five of their 12 matches prior to this weekend, and lost 1-0 halftime advantages in every match of the three-game losing streak they carried into Sunday.
All those dropped points were starting to add up. Portland entered Sunday’s game in ninth place in the rough-and-tumble West, well out of the playoff places. They badly needed a win against the ‘Caps – and they knew it.
“I think we realize that we’re not where we want to be right now,” Timbers midfielder Jack Jewsbury told media in the buildup to the match. “We realize we have to continue to get better and continue to move up the table, and we got to start doing that quickly.”
They checked all those boxes on Sunday, winning 4-2 to end their losing streak and hand the ‘Caps their first loss in four.
Portland weren’t perfect, and they’re still below the red line in the West, but this sort of win was exactly what they needed. They played a fantastic first half, then held firm in the second – hitting pause on their disturbing trend of blowing late leads.
Just as importantly, they got big performances from some of their most important players. Darlington Nagbe, who is headed off to Dallas to join the US national team ahead of the Copa America, was excellent, playing one of his finest games of the season. He completed 36 of 41 passes, had three key passes and scored his first goal of the year, curling in a fantastic free kick in the 82nd minute to put the Timbers up 4-1.
Jack McInerney was stellar as well, continuing his emergence as a really solid option at striker behind Fanendo Adi. He earned the penalty that led to the Timbers’ first goal, took advantage of a Kendall Waston slip to put Portland up 2-0 and could’ve easily scored on two other occasions if it weren’t for some excellent work from the outstanding David Ousted.
The recently-maligned Dairon Asprilla even got in on the action. Diego Valeri caused a bit of consternation by allowing him to take Portland’s 78th-minute PK, but Asprilla, a key contributor in last year’s playoffs who had recently been in Porter’s doghouse, buried it to pick up some much-needed confidence.
Of course, it wasn’t all roses for the Timbers. Valeri came off injured late, Designated Player Lucas Melano had another drab performance and they were outplayed by the ‘Caps for large portions of the second half.
But they survived. They withstood Vancouver’s onslaught, and turned that first-half advantage into a hugely important three points. After struggling all year to hold onto their leads, they again know what it feels like to close out a tough match.
That sort of experience is important for any team – even the defending Cup champions – and it should only serve the Timbers well moving forward.