Portland Timbers celebrate vs. Philadelphia Union
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Four takeaways from Portland Timbers' MLS is Back semifinal win over Philadelphia Union | Charles Boehm

The Portland Timbers will fight for the MLS is Back Tournament trophy next week, thanks to their well-deserved 2-1 win over a drained-looking Philadelphia Union side on Wednesday night.

Here’s a few thoughts on how the Rose City side marched on.

Gio loves tournaments

Ask anyone who’s been there: Knockout situations are just different from the weekly grind of a league schedule – mentally, physically, psychologically. Few in contemporary North American soccer have embraced the challenges of tournament play like Giovanni Savarese.

The Timbers’ boss is headed for his sixth cup final as a head coach, having led the New York Cosmos to four Soccer Bowls (the NASL’s final) before arriving in Portland and overseeing PTFC’s progression to MLS Cup 2018 as well as two deep runs in the U.S. Open Cup. His teams don’t always meet expectations in league play, but all they have to do is qualify to make trouble in whatever bracket they’re allowed into.

Whether it’s a reflection of his particular brand of preparation, the emotional effect he’s able to impart on his players or some other alchemy, the onetime MetroStars icon has a knack for these occasions. And his Timbers, with their blend of age and vigor, savvy brains and willing legs, have turned out to be the perfect audience for his methods and game-planning.

“There’s a trust within the coaching staff to the players, and amongst the players on the field, that if we take risks because we’re good players and we can make plays, that we’ll have each other’s back,” said Jeremy Ebobisse postgame. “The togetherness of the group that we’ve fostered over the last couple of years has been really special. Guys that have come in have fit in seamlessly and now you’re starting to see more and more of the benefits of what we’ve put together as a group.”

Game states...

Wednesday’s adversaries are two of MLS’s best against the ball, which is a jargon-y way of saying that they’re generally quite comfortable defending and make efficient use of their possession, mainly in transition. In a sport where the team that scores first tends to prosper, the opening goal would be influential.

Neither PTFC nor Philly are really built to chase games and mount comebacks. Wednesday marked the first time the Union have trailed IN THIS ENTIRE TOURNAMENT – and you could tell – while the Timbers, as Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle notes, have spent just 57 minutes behind on the scoreboard.

That Goonies-never-say-die vibe around the San Jose Earthquakes? The chaotic good of LAFC believing they can storm back from just about any deficit? They should probably be celebrated even more than they are, because at this level teams that go in front know exactly how to manage leads. With terriers like Eryk Williamson and the iconic Diego Chara on patrol, Portland certainly do.

“They are well-coached and organized and when you give up a goal early on a set piece you’re chasing right away. It was always going to be hard once they got a lead,” said Philly’s Jim Curtin. “First time in the competition in all six of our games that we went down. So we had to find ways to try to break them down and we just weren’t sharp enough on the night.”

… and set pieces

It’s a time-worn tale. Whatever kind of team you are, if you’re looking to seize an advantage regardless of how a game’s tempo is ticking or what unfolds in the run of play, free kicks and restarts are the X factor. You can target individual opponents, prepare carefully-orchestrated routines, rely on the size, strength or leap of a specific player or two or all of the above.

And the defending side has no shortcuts – you simply have to be dialed-in and ready every single time, no matter what. Just ask any of the MIB teams that have gone home at the hands of Minnesota United over the past month.

Given how intricate this area of the game has become, there’s a good chance something complicated went wrong for the Union on Ebobisse’s opener, something that outsiders overlook or aren’t aware of, so it’s risky to point fingers at any one person. That said, I have no idea what Kai Wagner was doing here:

Every other marker in a white jersey in the danger zone was touch-tight to their man. Ebobisse didn’t have to jump to head home the game’s first goal, and Wagner didn’t jump as he attempted to body the striker away from the delivery. Whether he drifted out of focus for a moment or someone else muffed their lines, the match turned on that moment.

Something similar can be said of the eventual game-winner. I don’t know who was responsible for the back post, or Sebastian Blanco, in Philly’s defensive scheme, but someone missed a cue, and it led to a point-blank look at goal that even an elfen presence like Blanco knows how to attack:

So close, Philly

So the semis were a bridge too far for the Union, who picked the wrong team of veterans and scene-stealers to dig themselves into a hole against.

Knowing a little bit about Curtin and the staff that surrounds him, I expect Philadelphia to glean plenty of teachable moments from this game and the tournament as a whole. Their head coach has guided them to this point by learning a little more every season and there’s no reason that trajectory can’t continue.

That said, this was a missed opportunity. The Union – at least from where I’m standing – have a great model and a fitting identity. They really need a signature breakthrough of some sort, whether it’s a first major trophy, a head-turning Homegrown transfer overseas or something else along those lines because even a modest proof-of-concept moment could spark a turbo-charged boost to what they’re already doing.

They remind me a bit of FC Dallas under Oscar Pareja, who’s now at the helm of a comparable project at Orlando City, heading into the 2016 season. That’s the one they dominated, grabbing the Supporters’ Shield and Open Cup championships to drive home the potency of what they were crafting in Frisco.

This, more than anything, is what will drive DOOPers to distraction when they look back on this night, specifically Sergio Santos’ missed penalty kick and the other breakdowns. One more firm shot of belief could make all the difference for Curtin and his squad.

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