TIMBERS STAND TALL READY FOR ROAD TEST
Home openers have been fun for Timbers fans over the years, and the 2017 version was no different.
Portland did the expected in dismantling expansion Minnesota United 5-1 last Friday, building on the momentum generated during the preseason.
The five goals matched the club's record for an MLS game and were the most Portland has scored in an MLS home match.
So, sure, there are plenty of signs that the 2017 Timbers will be entertaining and — if motivated — can be much more effective than the 2016 version.
Still, we remind you that a season ago Portland opened with a home win over Columbus and it was all smiles. In fact, Portland has been tough to beat at Providence Park since Caleb Porter arrived in 2013.
But to really wash away the odor of a lost 2016, the Timbers need to produce on the road — a winless trail of horrors last season.
Their first shot at that comes Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles. Strange as it sounds, this is a match the Timbers should be favored to win.
The Galaxy are in transition and not the star-studded team that has long been the league's marquee club. And the Timbers have a much more settled lineup than does L.A.
"If we continue the form we're in, I don't think playing on the road is going to be too much trouble," Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson says. "We're not going to concentrate much on the road. We're just going to concentrate on doing what we were doing all preseason. I think that showed we're a different team than last year."
The Galaxy are a much different team, as well. Bruce Arena is now coaching the U.S. national team. Gone, too, is striker Robbie Keane. Giovani dos Santos is their one star. He scored the goal in an opening 2-1 loss to FC Dallas on a penalty kick. The Galaxy dominated possession against Dallas, but didn't have much to show for it.
To be sure, the Galaxy will be motivated. Two home losses to conference rivals is no way to get a season started.
The Timbers' advantage is their eight starters who've been around for a while — and three newcomers who seem to be settling.
Sebastian Blanco and David Guzman were difference-makers in the opener: Blanco with his hustle drew the free kick that produced the first goal, and he added an assist; Guzman was nothing short of dominant in midfield. He was responsible for winning possession 19 times for Portland. If that kind of production is consistent — and every indication is it will be — the result should be more transition opportunities for Portland's attackers.
The one complaint from Porter about the Timbers' play in the opener: that his team wasn't determined enough to finish off Minnesota early. Yet even the coach couldn't help but express excitement about the three late goals, saying: "This group, when they want to score, when they play aggressive, it's scary."
Consensus seems to be that Portland's attacking talent is among the best — perhaps the best — in MLS. Count Minnesota coach Adrian Heath among those impressed with the six players in front of the Timbers' back line.
"If they're not the best, they're one of the best," Heath said. "They've got a little bit of everything. You've got the talent and speed of (Darlington) Nagbe, you've got the creativity of Blanco and (Diego) Valeri, the physical presence of (Fanendo) Adi, so they've got really, really good players."
Those players produced some really nice goals against Minnesota. Perhaps the best was Valeri's first, 90 seconds after halftime. That goal is notable for several reasons:
• It was Blanco's first assist for the Timbers, his cross looping right onto the forehead of Valeri. Valeri has scored 41 goals (regular season and playoffs) for Portland, but this was his first with a header.
• The finish came at the end of a 20-second, six-pass sequence that started with Vytas and Nagbe combining to win possession on the left side of midfield and wound up with Blanco delivering his cross from the right. Adi, posting up just outside the top of the 18-yard box, had three defenders at his back and the eyes of three other Loons watching him as he laid the ball off to Blanco in space on the right wing
• And the player joining Valeri in the box, occupying the attention of both central defenders? That was right back Alvas Powell. In previous seasons, Powell rarely wandered far from the right sideline.