TAM cash, Cascante pay off for Timbers
There is never a good time to lose the voice of someone in the back four. And a player most responsible for making sure his team's defenders are working together to prevent threats before they happen.
Three minutes into a game against one of the most potent attacks in MLS is a very bad time for a key player to go down.
That's what happened on Saturday, when Liam Ridgewell's right quad tightened up early in the Timbers' battle with Los Angeles FC.
There was no panic on the field, though, because the Timbers knew Julio Cascante would be up for the challenge. And the 6-2 Costa Rican played big in Portland's fifth consecutive win, 2-1 at Providence Park over the expansion team.
Perhaps more telling, Cascante's teammates seemed happy the 24-year-old got a chance to prove himself to Timbers fans.
Zarek Valentin played beside Cascante in preseason matches on the right side of the Timbers' defense. Against LAFC, Valentin was at left back and Cascante at left center back, and their connection was strong.
"He's a very good player," Valentin said. "Credit to Julio, he's been the ultimate professional. He's been one of the first guys at training. He's taken care of his body, trained well and taken every training seriously and was waiting for his time.
"I told him: 'Whenever you get your moment, dude, you're going to take it and you're going to shine.'"
Goalkeeper Jeff Attinella said he, too, was confident Cascante would hold his own.
"If a guy comes in and plays like that, we're going to be all right," Attinella said.
Saturday's match was a demonstration of how Targeted Allocation Money has changed MLS.
In the past two seasons, the Timbers missed Ridgewell's vocal leadership and his ability to pass out of the back, and they were an unsettled defensive team. Now, with TAM players such as Cascante, there is depth.
When Ridgewell was left off the team early in the season, Bill Tuiloma performed well, for the most part. Tuiloma is working his way back from injury (and has played for Timbers 2 recently), so on Saturday it was Cascante's turn.
"He deserves minutes because of the way he's been working," Portland star midfielder Diego Valeri said. "And he's a great guy inside the locker room. Even if he couldn't get minutes … he was always with good humor and a very good guy."
Players added in the offseason with TAM money were vital to the victory over LAFC.
Midfielder Cristhian Paredes (who seems to improve each game alongside Diego Chara) scored his first MLS goal. Forward Samuel Armenteros made his first MLS goal memorable with his finish and celebration. And forward Andy Polo, recently named to Peru's preliminary roster for next month's World Cup, put in his most complete shift for the Timbers.
• The five-match win streak has elevated Portland (5-3-2, 17 points) into a tie for third place with FC Dallas (4-1-5, 17) in the Western Conference. They trail Sporting Kansas City (7-2-3, 24) and LAFC (6-3-2, 20).
• Attinella established a Timbers MLS record with 404 consecutive minutes without allowing a goal.
It took a special effort to end the string. Carlos Vela found just enough space to loft a delicate, curving slow-motion shot that curled beyond Attinella's reach. It was the seventh goal of the season for Vela.
Valentin, who was a couple yards away when Vela took the shot, shook his head after watching a replay of the goal.
"Vela scored a ridiculous goal," Valentin said. "He's done that two or three times this year. I maybe could have stepped a little closer to try to make it difficult, but he scored a good goal."
• The 404-minute stretch without a goal wasn't only Attinella's doing, of course.
"Everyone is doing a good job of staying organized and really buying in to keeping the other team away from the net," Attinella said. "You're seeing a lot of commitment from the guys in front of me, winning balls and controlling the box and really battling."
During the five-match win streak, only once have the Timbers had more possession than their opponent — and that was because a depleted Seattle team sat back when it visited Portland.
On Saturday, LAFC had 59 percent of possession, but generated few quality chances.
"Sometimes when you have the ball, it doesn't mean that you're necessarily in control," Valentin said. "If we can force them into spots where they're not comfortable, that means we're defending but we're still on the front foot."
• Saturday's winning goal from Armenteros was not too shabby, either. He picked up possession on Portland's side of midfield and dribbled at pace until unleashing a well-placed 23-yard shot into the goal.
Armenteros then endeared himself to Timbers faithful by climbing the stairs and celebrating with the Timbers Army.
That his celebration drew a yellow card didn't disturb Portland coach Giovanni Savarese.
"I'm one that wants our players to show their emotions, but be smart," Savarese said. "Armenteros has all the right to jump in there. He's been working very hard, and he scored a fantastic goal."
Armenteros has taken on the role that Maxi Urruti played so effectively in 2015, when the Timbers made their MLS Cup run, giving Portland a second scoring threat at forward. Like Urruti, Armenteros brings energy and movement to the attack, which provides a significant change of pace from the bruising Fanendo Adi. Armenteros also provides competition for playing time that should keep Adi focused and working hard.
• Next for Portland is a 6 p.m. PT Saturday game at last-place Colorado (2-6-2, 8).