Three positives from Portland’s big win in Vancouver

by Charlie Folkestad
Gio Savarese and Aljaz Ivacic celebrate a rivalry win in Vancouver.

The Portland Timbers entered BC Place with reasons for skepticism last Saturday.

The Timbers had earned just one point from their three preceding matches, two of which were at home. The squad was still suffering from important injuries, as well. And despite their poor league record, Vancouver had only lost once at home under Vanni Sartini (7-1-1 coming in).

Nevertheless, second-half goals from Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Yimmi Chara were enough to lift Portland to a crucial victory. This match should have been over as soon as Niezgoda made it 2-0, though Cristian Dajome scored on the stroke of 75 minutes to keep Vancouver in it. Yimmi responded and despite some late diceyness, the Timbers held on for a win.

So what went right for the Timbers in Vancouver? What did they do to separate themselves from such a poor run of form? And, most importantly, can they keep this momentum going?

DPs stepped up

Yimmi Chara and Jaroslaw Niezgoda have not been Designated Player-level performers for the Timbers this season, full stop. Niezgoda had one (meaningless) goal before this match, and everyone knew Yimmi Chara’s pair of bicycle kicks wasn’t sustainable.

But against Vancouver, these two had the Timbers’ only two chances of the second half, and both got converted.

Niezgoda’s goal in particular was a phenomenal display of skill. It’s a striker’s goal, through and through: after receiving the ball from Blanco, he spun Florian Jungwirth and smashed it past Thomas Hasal with his left foot.

All three DPs were involved in this goal. Yimmi created the counterattack opportunity by flicking the ball past his defender. Sebastian Blanco then created the chance by relaying the ball to Jarek, who finished the chance.

Yimmi Chara’s goal wasn’t anything to write home about, but he was in the right place at the right time and took his chance well. It ended up being the match winner, and he earned an MLS Team of the Week nod for his efforts.

Chance of sustainability: above average

Niezgoda needs confidence more than anything else, and this is just the sort of goal to keep a striker hungry. His window of opportunity to compete for the starting spot is closing, but he has plenty of time to prove himself before Felipe Mora returns.

Blanco’s been his usual self when he plays, and he’s only getting healthier. So far he’s logged 244 total minutes, less than half of his potential ones.

Yimmi Chara remains an inconsistent enigma. His output seems to wax and wane every week. Sometimes he’ll score a world-class goal and other times he’ll be a non-factor in the final third. But if he gets hot, this Timbers side will destroy some unprepared teams.

Aljaz Ivacic breakout game?

This isn’t something you can usually say after conceding two goals, but Portland’s goalkeeper did more than enough to earn three points. Ivacic made five solid saves, including the first of two penalties, and avoided any glaring mistakes.

His first big save was a diving effort to deny Sebastian Berhalter’s long-range shot. The next, an acrobatic tip over the bar off a header. The next was his biggest yet as a Timber: a diving stop to save Dajome’s 88th-minute penalty.

Neither of Vancouver’s goals were Ivacic’s fault, either — Portland’s back line fell asleep on the first goal and goalkeepers are never expected to save penalties.

Chance of sustainability: medium

The worst things I can say about Ivacic are (1) he still struggles to hold the ball after saving it and (2) his distribution could improve. But like Niezgoda, his biggest hurdle is confidence, and he should feel more confident after this win.

The Timbers are healing

Sure, Blanco only played 45 minutes, but Larrys Mabiala’s full 90 should be celebrated. Giovanni Savarese has been saying the Timbers have four starting-caliber center backs, and he means it.

“I felt very good. I felt very well this game,” Mabiala said. “A little bit shaky at some moments, but I just needed to get the rhythm back. But overall, I felt very well today.”

Gio commented on Blanco’s health postgame:

Having Blanco play two matches on turf, we needed to manage the minutes and I felt that [Marvin] Loría has looked very well in practice and gave us a very high level for 45 minutes in the way he did during the first half,” he said. “Then just making sure we put in another fresh player into the game because we knew that the match was going to be very physical with ups and downs. The guys did a very good job to manage those situations.”

Eryk Williamson is recovering despite his exclusion from this game. Felipe Mora is too. It’s only a matter of time before Portland have their full complement of options available. And when they do, they’ll be one of the deepest teams in MLS.

Chance of sustainability: high

Looking ahead

Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of problems with this team.

Earlier I lauded Portland’s potential depth. That being said, a frank discussion about outside backs is in order. They continued their poor run of form Saturday — Bravo nearly gave the game away all by himself — and there’s been no sign of improvement.

Maybe help arrives in the summer or Gio gets these guys into shape somehow, but the room is still averaging a red card every other match. Let’s fix that.

The “aging Timbers” narrative died down after Diego Valeri and Steve Clark left, but the Timbers are still the 10th-oldest team in MLS. I’m not ready to label that a necessarily bad thing, but just something to keep an eye on if injuries keep piling up.

The Houston Dynamo may still be a random Western Conference team in Timbers fans’ heads, and they will still be the inferior team talent-wise, but consider these factors:

(1) Houston are one of just six teams to score at least 10 goals so far this season (LAFC, Austin, Columbus, Montreal, Dallas, and Portland are the others). That includes seven goals in their last two games.

(2) Houston are undefeated at home this season (two draws, two wins) and the Timbers never win in Texas.

(3) According to American Soccer Analysis’ “goals added” metric, the Dynamo have the second-most goals added via passing against the outside back-occupied zones (per 96 minutes).

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