The Portland Timbers have booked their spot in the Knockout Stage of the MLS is Back Tournament with a game to spare thanks to Saturday night’s 2-1 win over the Houston Dynamo, pushing their record in Florida to 2-0 and giving them a useful cushion heading into their final Group F game, vs. LAFC on Thursday (10:30 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada).
It’s a dramatic and welcome turnabout from their underwhelming start to the season back in early spring, as the bullish atmosphere around the squad duly reflects.
“Two months ago we were locked in our houses looking to come and play soccer, looking to a competition like this. We had to remember that,” said head coach Giovanni Savarese postgame when asked about his message to his team following their 2-1 win over the LA Galaxy last week. “We cannot forget where we were a couple of months ago. For us, it’s important when we step on the field we appreciate every single minute we have on the field. I think the guys understood that from the beginning and they worked very hard to get a very important result against a very good team.”
A first-half golazo from Jeremy Ebobisse got the Timbers on the front foot, a key advantage when facing the Dynamo’s speed in transition. It’s another timely contribution from the American striker, who’s now scored in both of his team’s games at MLS is Back and seems to have taken firm hold of Portland’s No. 9 role.
“You don't come to this kind of tournament unless you expect to be in a top position coming out of the group, adding points to the regular-season tally and then pushing on into the knockout round,” said Ebobisse. “We still have a challenging game against LAFC, and who knows how we're going to approach it, and whoever, whatever plays. We need to make sure we get three points again to keep that momentum going into the knockout rounds because we want to make a good run.”
Savarese noted the importance of depth and squad rotation in the tropical conditions, perhaps a hint of lineup adjustments vs. LAFC.
“It’s not easy because this is a very intense tournament. There are many games and short time to prepare for each match. To recover is very difficult,” he noted in Spanish. “It’s very important to have players that want to fit in and they want to do their part every time they play. So we have depth, we have a team that competes well and that’s very important because everybody feels they want to contribute.”
Portland’s humbling 3-1 home loss to Minnesota United in their season opener and the labored 1-0 win over Nashville SC in Week 2 raised some tough questions in the Rose City, and they sound vindicated about their resurgence after COVID-19’s interruption to the campaign.
“I think it's been acknowledged that we didn't have a perfect start to the season, with one win and one loss and maybe not playing as well as we could have,” said Ebobisse. “But this past quarantine break everyone's been real serious, and we've regrouped and I think that that's shown in the first two games.”