TIMBERS FACE FINAL TEST
As he sat at the podium for his postgame press conference last Sunday following the Timbers' resounding 4-0 win over D.C. United, Caleb Porter thought back 12 months to one of his darkest days as Portland's coach.
A year ago, Portland traveled to Vancouver on the final day of the season needing a victory to make the playoffs. That result was 4-1 loss that meant the Timbers did not get the chance to defend their 2015 championship.
"I can remember vividly, last year in that last press conference after losing to Vancouver, that feeling," Porter said. "We went back to work, made some changes, made some adjustments" and returned to the playoffs.
Once again, it's Vancouver to finish the regular-season slate. While this isn't must-win like 2016, it's about as big as a non-elimination game can get. Win and the Timbers finish at the top of the conference. Tie or lose, and Portland is likely back at home days later for an elimination game.
Oh, and a win would bring the Cascadia Cup to Portland, too.
Among the most significant of the changes Porter referred to was signing Sebastian Blanco. The Argentine winger has supplied versatility and competitive energy all season. He has eight goals and seven assists after his two goals in Sunday's win over D.C. — one perhaps the goal of the year given Diego Valeri's juggling act to create Blanco's perfectly-placed shot.
"It was a great little sequence with Blanco and Valeri. Those two guys are really clicking," Porter said. "I said it last year: Our wingers need to produce more, and we're getting good production. Blanco has been excellent."
Another area of emphasis was finding a center back partner for Liam Ridgewell. Injuries to Gbenga Arokoyo (lost for the year in preseason) and to Ridgewell kept that position in flux much of the season. But with Ridgewell finally healthy and Larrys Mabiala a dozen matches into his MLS career, the middle of the defense looks like a team strength for the first time since Ridgewell and Nat Borchers anchored the Timbers' 2015 championship run.
Mabiala, a 6-2, 30-year-old who started his professional career with Paris Saint-Germain and came to Portland from Turkey's top league, says he is comfortable playing alongside the 33-year-old Ridgewell. Though they have partnered for only five games, Mabiala watched video of the Timbers before arriving in late June to get a feel for his new teammates and says it helps that he and Ridgewell are both vocal veterans.
Goalkeeper Jeff Attinella says Mabiala's strength, athleticism and toughness have been welcome.
"Larrys is a big boy, so he's able to give it right back to (aggressive forwards)," Attinella says. "And he's winning a ton of balls in the air. He does a lot of the dirty work that makes my life a lot easier."
Mabiala is enjoying the challenge of MLS, of defending against a variety of attacking styles.
"I have to be very careful because I am very physical," Mabiala says of adapting to MLS. "I'm doing well because I haven't received a lot of cards, which was one of my weaknesses."
Mabiala's only card was red — for a foul that likely saved a win for Portland over the New York Red Bulls.
As for Ridgewell, the Timbers are a different team without him — especially at home. In the last 17 matches that Ridgewell has started at Providence Park, Portland is 15-0-2 with a 42-13 goals margin.
n Not only will a win over Vancouver lock up first place in the West for the Timbers, it should secure the MVP award for Valeri. Truth is, it should already be in the bag given that Valeri (21 goals, 11 assists) is only the second player in league history to post 20 goals and 10 assists in a season (Sebastian Giovinco in 2015).
n Darren Mattocks has played in the last 10 games (eight starts) with Fanendo Adi injured. He has two goals and two assists in that stretch, and drew his fourth penalty-kick foul against D.C. United.
"I think he's still getting back in the swing of things," Porter said. "I know it's crazy to say because he's played a lot of games in a row, but he hasn't played a lot of games in the last several years, so there's still a lot of work for him to do with his timing, movement and finishing."