Positive plays pay off for Timbers
The Portland Timbers continue to be without key players as they enter the final stretch of their seventh MLS season.
When they play host to Colorado at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, captain Liam Ridgewell and goalkeeper Jake Gleeson probably won't be in the lineup. Forward Fanendo Adi might return from a hamstring injury that has sidelined him for 2 1/2 games.
But the Timbers should carry some positive energy into the game, coming off Friday's important 2-0 victory over the visiting New York Red Bulls.
It was the type of win coach Caleb Porter has been waiting for — the response to a challenge the Timbers have failed to find in too many big moments this season.
If Jeff Attinella didn't come up with a point-blank reaction save and if Diego Valeri wasn't Diego Valeri, Friday might have ended up feeling much different for Portland. But such is the roller coaster of an MLS season, and for one night, at least. the Timbers handled the turbulence with the required focus.
Porter has been looking for the willingness and ability to make vital plays around the goal to protect a narrow lead.
"In this game, we weren't comfy," he says of Friday's match. "In some of the other games where we weren't comfy, we gave up the goal, and today we finally got the breakthrough where it was tight, we're down a man even, and we got plays out of guys."
They were down a man because Larrys Mabiala did what he had to do and grabbed New York's Gonzalo Veron just outside the top of the penalty area. He was correctly sent off for denial of a goal-scoring opportunity and thus will be suspended for Wednesday's match (further depleting the defense). But if he hadn't fouled Veron, chances are the Timbers wouldn't have beaten New York.
Porter says his most successful teams have been good at holding leads late in a match.
"When we won the championship we did it with defending," he says. "I was disappointed up to this point that we haven't shown more of that mettle and grit and that ability to grind out a game."
The grind continues with a Sunday trip to Seattle to face team that has found its legs and now tops the Western Conference standings.
Friday's win — which kept Portland fourth in the West — showed that the team with the second most goals in MLS this season can win a bruising battle.
As Zarek Valentin put it: "It wasn't the prettiest football, but we needed a hard-fought, gritty win like that. I think that's what the doctor ordered for our team."
• At age 31, Valeri is having his best season since joining the Timbers in 2013. His latest magic was a one-touch re-direction for the critical first goal against New York, technique Porter calls "world-class."
"You're born with stuff like that," Valeri's good friend Valentin says. "I could practice the rest of my life and I wouldn't be able to finish like that."
Valeri has scored in four consecutive matches and has 14 goals this season, tied for third in MLS. Since arriving in Portland in 2013 — and scoring a spectacular first goal against the Red Bulls in his debut — Valeri has contributed to 102 regular-season goals (51 assists and 51 goals) — more than any other player in MLS.
How important is Valeri? He has scored or assisted on 45 percent of the regular-season goals the Timbers have scored in games he has played for Portland.
• Sebastian Blanco provided a couple of exciting individual attacks during the first half against New York. What impresses Porter is not so much the nifty footwork.
"He works for the team. He does the little things for the team. He's a very honest guy. You don't always get that in a DP (designated player)," Porter says. "Sometimes they want to play for themselves, but with Blanco he's working and he's fighting and he's scrapping and he'll play a role and he'll also bring some quality to the team."
• Wednesday's match feels like another big one. The Rapids (6-13-4, 22 points) are at the bottom of the West and last week fired coach Pablo Mastroeni. For the Timbers, fourth at 10-9-7, this is an important opportunity. Portland's next three games are on the road before three of the final four matches at home.