LOS ANGELES – Deep into stoppage time during Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal tie between the visiting Portland Timbers and LAFC, a ball was lofted into the box where the presumptive MLS MVP awaited.
Carlos Vela teed up an overhead kick — the kind of last-gasp finish the Banc of California Stadium faithful have grown used to seeing in the short year-plus of existence — as those in crowd who weren’t singing their team on, held their collective breath.
Portland defender Zarek Valentin threw himself at the MLS’s leading scorer, hoping to become more than sizzle reel highlight fodder.
“With the way Vela is playing, you’d probably put your money on him scoring,” said the Timbers left back after the match. “Luckily I was able to get in there and make a stop.”
SeatGeek has great deals for future MLS matchesGET TICKETS Official Ticketing Partner of Major League Soccer
Moments after that final block, the whistle came, and with it Portland’s first-ever victory away at LAFC, some relief after losing their 2019 home opener to the Black & Gold just last month.
In the end, Valentin’s play was only the last in a string of a tireless defensive shift he and his team put in to lift the Timbers to a 1-0 victory and a path to the USOC semifinal against Minnesota United.
And Vela wasn’t the only one Portland had to keep in check.
“It’s a tough task because you can’t just focus on one player because they have many players that can kill you,” said Valentin. “Whether they bring in [Adama] Diomande off the bench or [Diego] Rossi. All of them are playing at such a high level. We have to be aware of everyone but we believe in ourselves. When we play our game, we’re pretty tough to play against. I would consider this the best defensive performance as a Timber.”
In a game of tough tackles and few chances, the Timbers — who were without head coach Giovanni Savarese after he had to fly overseas for a family emergency — put in a near-flawless defensive performance to keep LAFC in check.
That’s exactly what they did, holding the home side to just one shot on target but acting head coach Carlos Llamosa tipped his hat to the stubbornness of his whole side.
“I will give credit to the defense but also to the whole team because our midfielders were doing a good job every time the ball goes to the side, to make sure we double team those guys, don’t let them come inside so easily,” said Llamosa after the match. “They’re used to [going] inside and then curve it to the far post. They scored a lot of goals like that. So, I think the central midfielders and also the forwards, dictating the ball to the sides, they did a tremendous job defensively.”
With Portland conceding 21 fouls and the home side adding 11 of their own, it was another chippy contest, with Jeremy Ebobisse’s smart strike in the final 10 minutes being the only thing separating the two sides and keeping them from going to extra time or penalties.
While the Timbers were even able to challenge LAFC largely without skipper Diego Valeri — who only came on for the final 15 minutes of regular time — the bigger absence was their fiery manager.
“He’s a coach who wishes he could play with us,” said Valentin of Savarese’s intensity. “He would do everything and anything to be on the pitch with us. He’s our leader but there are some things that are bigger than football.”
Both Valentin and Llamosa acknowledged that the Timbers felt an added boost to pick up the victory for their coach but in the end, a narrow game like Wednesday’s really came down to those key moments that made the difference.
“Late in games it’s always tough, it doesn’t matter where you’re at and not to mention playing what’s statistically the best team in the league, they’re gonna throw numbers forward,” said Valentin. “Kudos to our guys for making it difficult.”