On the brink of disaster, Timbers come through
On Tuesday, the owner had tweeted a guarantee of sorts.
Merritt Paulson's message to his 17,000-plus Twitter followers: "Said before Sun we will make playoffs & stand by it. 50 pts target but 46+ likely enough. Key is all 3 pts vs. swing west teams like this Fri."
Midway through the second half Friday night against Colorado, the Timbers weren't exactly making Paulson look prescient.
With 20 minutes left, the visiting Rapids led 1-0. Portland was going down, and perhaps its season with it.
Then in a four-minute period, the Timbers scored twice to steal a 2-1 victory at Providence Park and prop up their fading Major League Soccer playoff hopes.
Portland (5-6-9) entered the night next-to-last among nine teams in the Western Conference, winless in its last four games and a startling 1-2-7 at home. This from a team that finished with the best regular-season record in the West a year ago.
The Rapids (7-6-6), who had lost only once since May 17, came in tied for third in the West but missing three starters serving suspensions -- defender Shane O'Neill, forward Vicente Sanchez and midfielder Nick LaBrocca. Then forward Deshorn Brown, who had scored Colorado's goal in the 16th minute, exited due to injury moments later.
So even with 14 games yet to play in a long season, a Portland loss would have been beyond demoralizing, and perhaps debilitating to any playoff hopes.
"If we lose this game, I'm not sure we're coming back from it," midfielder Will Johnson said in a spirited Portland locker room afterward. "You take one game at a time, but at halftime, it was tough to come in here and look everybody in the eye and get back on the same page.
"You never know what the future is going to hold, but if we'd lost this game it would have been really detrimental to our season. We built up a lot of momentum to this game, put a lot of emphasis on it. With (the Rapids) having a few guys out, there would have been a lot of negativity had we lost."
The Timbers have made a practice this season of giving up an early goal, then playing from behind. When that happens, a sense of panic sets in. It happened again when Brown tallied from close range Friday night.
"The first half, at times we were a little stretched," Portland coach Caleb Porter said. "We got a little rattled because we've given up early goals. We didn't keep our composure very well. We didn't dig in and defend. Part of chasing a game is defending. Otherwise, you give up the next goal. We weren't as hungry as we needed to be defensively.
"We adjusted a few things at halftime, got the midfielders back a bit, and were able to get ahold of the game, control it."
Johnson said the season's trend of falling behind early was taking its toll.
"It's frustration that you're finding yourself down in a game that you shouldn't be down," he said. The Rapids "had a few chances that we gave them. You try so hard to get that goal back right away. We let ourselves down.
"But Caleb got us together at halftime and calmed everybody down. He said, 'There's 45 minutes left. We know the goals will come. Just make sure you don't get too reckless and give up that second goal.'
"You want it so bad sometimes, you make mistakes. On one hand, it's a credit to your passion. On the other hand, you have to be smart and calm and act like you've won a game before."
The Timbers launched only four shots the entire second half. Two of them found net. The first came was courtesy of the exquisitely named Maximiliano Urruti from close range off a great feed by Jack Jewsbury. The second was on a bomb that seemed to come out from midfield by Diego Valeri. Afterward, Johnson could hardly wait to relive Valeri's magical shot.
"I'm going to go home on my computer and hit 'play' over and over again until I fall asleep," Johnson said. "That was a thing of beauty. You don't see goals like that every day."
Defense has been the Timbers' biggest bugaboo this season. They've already yielded 33 goals -- third-most in the MLS and as many as they gave up all of last season.
The addition of English Premier League veteran D-man Liam Ridgewell -- making his MLS debut after being signed as a designated player -- seemed to stabilize Portland's back four.
"Everybody can see he's a good player," Johnson said. "But great players make the other three guys on the back line better as well, and that's what he did tonight. Tonight they were all better because Liam was out there."
Ridgewell recognized he was being added at a crucial time in the Timbers.
"I knew what I was walking into," he said. "Maybe me coming in relaxed things a little bit. Maybe everyone needed that. It's a big win for us tonight. Hopefully, it will put us on a run toward the end of the season."
That's what Porter is hoping. He sounded afterward as if his belief in his troops hasn't wavered.
"One of two things happen when you've been through a rough patch," Portland's second-year coach said. "You can be fractured, you can crumble, you can divide. What we've done is what good teams do: We've grown stronger, we've gotten better, we've become unbreakable. That's how we were able to pull it out the second half tonight.
"The blessing of what has transpired this season is, now that we're in games with pressure, our margin for error is slim. We're probably the strongest and toughest team in the league because of that."
That seems hyperbolic, given that the Timbers are still two points from the fifth and final playoff spot in the West.
There are yet eight road games to play, and all of the teams above them in the standings hold games in hand.
But the Timbers gave themselves a chance with the come-from-behind win Friday night. It will matter if they continue to win games.
"We took three points, but it's no more than three points," Porter conceded. "We have to move on."
The victory was important to the Timbers in another way, too.
"Not only for ourselves in the standings, but also for our fans," Jewsbury said. "They give us so much energy every game. To be able to give them back three points is a good feeling."
And they made their owner look good, too. Merritt Paulson lives to tweet another day.