Timbers counter winless early stage
It was an entertaining weekend of soccer at Providence Park as the Portland Timbers and Portland Thorns won their long-awaited home openers.
Perhaps a bit too entertaining? Especially for Timbers fans, who on Saturday night had to hold their breath to see if Portland finally would find a way to turn a lead into a triumph.
The Timbers' 3-2 win over Minnesota United was not assured until Darwin Quintero's open header in the dying minutes popped upward instead of toward the goal.
Make no mistake, the Timbers need to be cleaner defensively and find more possession if they are to win consistently in 2018.
But cleaning up mistakes is a much nicer process coming off a win — and when the recovery process does not include a cross-country flight.
A five-game road trip to open the season, necessary because of the expansion project at Providence Park, was "very difficult."
That's the way Diego Valeri described it, noting that those five road games followed weeks of preseason spent in Tucson, Arizona.
Add in a new coaching staff — and the way travel takes away from needed time to train — and it is fair to say that this work-in-progress deserves some time to sort itself out.
Valeri is an example of the transition the club is navigating. The 2017 MLS Most Valuable Player has scored in three consecutive games and has two assists. But his job description this season includes covering more ground and defending more than he was asked to do under former coach Caleb Porter.
It's a change Valeri — a team-first guy — is willing to embrace, even as he acknowledges the challenge.
"We are trying to be more compact and play in a different way," he said after Saturday's much-needed first win of 2018. "I like it because I help the team."
First-year coach Giovanni Savarese is only starting to put his stamp on the club. Time will tell, of course, but the "Christmas Tree" 4-3-2-1 formation Savarese has employed in the last four games feels like a foundational step implemented to manage early-season games while he and the players learn about each other.
Given the way opponents have been able to put the Timbers on their heels by throwing extra players into the attack late in games, finding and keeping more possession figures to be a priority.
"We were under pressure sometimes, and we couldn't keep the ball as we wanted," Valeri said of Saturday's match. "It's hard to manage because (Minnesota) pushed a lot of numbers forward, and it's not easy to manage that if you lost the ball."
Portland was able to create chances from counterattacks in the second half, and got the critical third goal that way. This team can be devastating in transition. The inclination to attack is natural, especially for players such as Valeri and Sebastian Blanco — whose charge into space up the left wing set up the third goal — when they see space ahead of them.
The challenge, it seems, is balancing the opportunity to go full throttle forward against the value of keeping possession with a lead.
Saturday's finish would have been a lot less tense had a fourth Portland goal from the counter stood. But the video replay official decided Fanendo Adi was offside on what would have been his second goal of the night.
After not seeing the field a week earlier at Orlando, Adi played his most effective match of the season and scored his first goal since last July 5 (he was injured and missed the last 12 matches of 2017).
The 27-year-old striker also is adjusting to the demands from his new coach.
"The biggest difference is he wants us to move more, and definitely for me he wants me to move more," Adi said. "It's something I'm working on. I'm a big guy. It's sometimes going to be hard for me to move like that in a tough game like this."
Goalkeeper Jake Gleeson made two more highlight-worthy reaction saves. But he did not want to talk about his right-handed stab to block a close-range header from Miguel Ibarra late in the first half.
"I focus on what I need to do better, not what I did well," Gleeson said. "The first (Minnesota) goal can't go in. That's where my mind is right now."
The second goal for the visitors was an own goal off the foot of Timbers defender Bill Tuiloma. But, as with the first goal for the Loons, a bit of quick quality from Quintero in his first MLS match created the goal.
Still, such moments focus attention on the absence of Liam Ridgewell. Ridgewell has not been on Portland's game-day roster since the 4-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls on March 10. Last week, Savarese said Ridgewell was injured ahead of the Orlando trip but trained last Tuesday.
Can't blame Savarese for choosing not to talk about Ridgewell after Saturday's win. But until the Timbers look more stable and settled defending inside their 18-yard box, Ridgewell's status will continue to be a talking point.
For his part, Gleeson says Saturday's win, no matter the shaky moments, will help the Timbers deal with future leads.
"Now, when we have those leads we can be a little bit more calm because we know we've won before," he said. "It's just getting through that process of learning how to win."
That process could be helped by playing three of their next four games at home — though a true test comes at 3 p.m. Sunday, when the top team in the MLS standings — New York City FC — visits Providence Park.
Thorns do it again
Lindsey Horan and Christine Sinclair again showed their championship pedigree in Sunday's home opener for the Thorns.
They combined for two terrific goals in a 2-1 win over the Orlando Pride in the home opener and reminded 16,466 fans at Providence Park that Thorns matches feature some of the best women soccer players in the world.
"The last two years, when we're really under pressure, Lindsey has stepped up," Thorns coach Mark Parsons said. "'Sinc' does it every game, but Lindsey has stepped up when we really need her. What she's doing now, she's stepping up every single game."
Horan, who turns 24 next month, has been a pro soccer player for six years. She has become comfortable toggling between the Thorns and the U.S. national team, as she proved again on Sunday after only one full training session with the Thorns following two weeks with the national team.
"It's not that difficult," Horan said about the balancing act. "You play with one team and come back here and you refocus on what you need to do with the club and what we want with this season."
Sinclair, who turns 35 this summer, has been part of Canada's national team for half of her life. She scored her third goal of the season on Sunday, her club-leading 34th NWSL goal.
Parsons said Sinclair, who led the University of Portland to national championships in 2002 and 2005, is in the best shape of her life.
"There's a hunger and positivity and drive in Sinc right now that's contagious," Parsons said. "We're not going to see many players like Sinclair, and we've got to take advantage of these games while she's here in this city leading us to victories."
The next opportunity to witness Sinclair and her teammates comes on Friday, when Portland plays host to the Washington Spirit at 7:30 p.m. at Providence Park.