The Rose City gang well and truly ruined an otherwise lovely-looking holiday afternoon at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Larrys Mabiala’s scrappy late winner producing a vintage Gio Savarese smash-and-grab away job to knock off the Western Conference’s top seed.
Here are three observations from Thursday's 1-0 triumph that booked a Conference Final spot.
The Rapids embraced the opportunity to host this unprecedented occasion, with a big crowd flocking to DSGP under the late-fall sunshine, and the home team greeted them with a vibrant start, locking Portland in their own end and creating a flurry of scoring chances in the first half-hour.
Austin Trusty thumped a corner-kick header just wide. Dom Badji and Cole Bassett forced Steve Clark into a couple of big saves. Mark-Anthony Kaye created what his side considered a clear penalty shout that was waved off by referee Ted Unkel. Jack Price was dictating the match, helped by some Timbers fouling that handed the hosts the set-piece situations they have utilized so devastatingly under Robin Fraser.
“Based on the way we started, I would say rust was not really the issue at all,” said Fraser, whose team had nearly three weeks off after Decision Day due to their No. 1 seed. “I do think the environment, the atmosphere drove us early.”
HIGHLIGHTS: Colorado Rapids vs. Portland Timbers | November 25, 2021
But no one in burgundy could produce that crucial final touch to open the scoring, leaving the game in no man’s land. And if you’ve watched the Giovanni Savarese-era Timbers at all, you know that’s an invitation they often seize upon – even playing on short rest, in mile-high altitude. They are opportunistic survivors, and you’d better draw some real blood when you get the jump on them.
“You're trying to get used to the altitude and we play, on top of that, four days ago, so it wasn't easy to really come in the first half and be as sharp and as precise as we wanted to be,” said Mabiala. “So we just wanted to not concede in the first half, to go back to the locker room at halftime, make some adjustments.”
Portland’s roster is one of the more experienced in MLS and they’re well-versed at performing in knockout scenarios. There’s not much they haven’t seen, and that imbues them with a preternatural confidence and composure in moments like this – even when their X-factor, Sebastian Blanco, limped off in tears with what looked like an acute hamstring strain early during the second half.
That helped them defy conventional wisdom and grow in the game while the fresher Rapids flagged, and eventually ran out of ideas, down the stretch.
Look at Colorado’s pass map and how little time they spent in Portland’s penalty box relative to their amount of possession. Then look at the game’s minute-by-minute expected goals progression, which reflects how the visitors soaked up pressure, then climbed into the ascendancy over the final half-hour:
PTFC collectively boast an elite sense of timing; they are so good at letting their opponents control spaces and phases that aren’t essential, in order to make sure they own what matters most. In the end, it was savagely ironic that they broke through on a restart, a domain that Colorado have heretofore been so masterful in.
“We're comfortable defending deep,” said Clark. “Colorado was on top of us, we expected that. There's no panic. We understand what it takes to dig out of those minutes and to weather their storm and I think that as you saw, the momentum starting to swing our way when we did … They threw everything at us, still 0-0, and we found the goal.”
Colorado topped the West with a laudable “team is the star” vibe, and the promotional materials for their postseason campaign quite rightly celebrated the fact that 91% of the first-team roster scored a goal or an assist this season.
But when it came down to it, they lacked their own version of Mabiala, a 34-year-old veteran who’s been in Portland since 2017 and was making his ninth career Audi MLS Cup Playoffs appearance on Thursday.
“We have a lot of quality in this group,” said the French-Congolese center back, “and I'm very confident about the fact that somebody is going to step up, and then make the plays that we need to have to be able to win that game.”
Even after the format shift from two-legged series to single-game matchups, the playoffs can be a battle of attrition – and so it seems for PTFC, whose upset win cost them dearly.
Blanco’s injury, and his emotional reaction to it, suggest he’s out for a while. And while Savarese said Portland will appeal the late red card to Dairon Asprilla, for now it robs him of a second starter for the Western Conference Final against the winner of Sunday’s Sporting KC-Real Salt Lake match.
Can anyone really replace Blanco’s feisty, pugnacious creativity in the clutch? Who could possibly fill that void, especially if Asprilla, PTFC’s “Mr. November,” is removed from contention? Seems impossible, right?
[Wait a second… bah gawd, is that Diego Valeri’s music I’m hearing…?!!?]
INJURY - Sebastian Blanco, Portland Timbers - 50th minute
Whatever unfolds in the coming days, you can be confident that Savarese will imbue his squad with the belief that another upset is possible. It’s starting to feel a lot like 2018 in the Rose City, no?
“We feel strong. We feel that we have everyone on the same page. We feel that everyone wants to contribute, and everybody's going to put a hard fight to make sure that we can continue to be competitive,” said the coach. “Seba is Seba – he’s a DP, he’s a very important player. We've seen what he's capable of doing, and we want to have people on the field who make us a better team. But the reality is that this group has shown through the entire season that we’re never giving up. We're going to work hard, that we are always in the belief that anybody is gonna step up to make sure that that we can achieve things as a group.
“We have players that can make the difference, but the group is the most important.”