The Portland Timbers have already bagged their tickets to the MLS Cup Qualifiers, but now they are setting their sights on 1st place in the Western Conference.
With their 1–0 win Sunday night over Vancouver Whitecaps, Timbers captured first place in the West for the first time with one week left in the regular season.
Yemi Chara broke the deadlock with a superb shot in the 61st minute. Jorge Villavana sent the ball to Chara in the penalty area, and Shara slotted a one-time side kick to hit goalkeeper Evan Bosch.
The Timbers (38 points, 11-5-5) now have the most points in the West, finally beating the Seattle Sounders after weeks of tie, but MLS changed the benchmarks to average points per game, in which Timbers lead the West at 1.81.
Coach Giovanni Savarese was not ready to celebrate the jump in first place, saying that the Timbers need to focus on the final week of matches before finishing the mission.
“It’s a good game, to win three points and now to be at the top of the table, but we know we still have two more games,” Savarese said. “We have to continue to focus on the important part of playing these two games which will be difficult.”
The victory was similar to a late injury by Jaroslaw Nesjoda, who strangely struck trying to win the ball in the sixth minute of injury time. Niezgoda was pulled from the stadium into the locker room.
When asked about an update regarding the signing of a particular player, Savarese hinted that the Timbers might have to enter the qualifiers without one of the most competent goalscorers.
“Not good. We’ll see. We’ll find out more later, but so far it’s not very positive.”
Sebastian Blanco, one of Timbers’ best attacking players, sustained an injury at the end of the season in September during the victory over the Seattle Sounders.
For the Timbers who outperformed nearly every other team in the league, Sunday was a surprisingly difficult affair against Whitecaps, with the match going goalless until Yimmi Chara’s second-half goal.
Timbers’s best first-half chance came in the 14th minute from center-back Larry Mabiala. Right-back Pablo Bonilla fired a ball into the penalty area that Mabila fired from the air ball, forcing Bush to rescue.
“In the first half, it was a bit difficult to find the ball that was penetrated in a vertical position,” Savarese said. “We played more side by side. But then in the second half, we were able to be more direct through the lines and create problems for them.”
Timbers again lost the assistant striker, striker Jeremy Epobisi, who had been out since suffering a concussion in front of LAFC on October 18.
But the Timbers have plenty of goalscorers as a single team in MLS with more than two players scoring at least seven goals. The Timbers have four players who have made it this far: Epobisi, Diego Valerie, Felipe Mora and Nesjuda.
With Sunday advancing, the Timbers topped the league in converting shot into goal (19.2%). Timbers lead the league in scoring goals with a score of 45 after Sunday’s result.
Niezgoda’s loss may have been a factor in the Timbers’ chances of winning their second MLS Cup, but the Timbers relied on depth and heavy player rotation throughout the year due to schedule congestion caused by COVID-19. Villavana said the players will continue to trust this depth.
“He is a really important player for us and I hope this is good news,” Villavana said of Nesjoda’s injury. “But we have players who can do the mission as well. Any player who will be called up and who will be ahead will perform. They have been performing, every player has had the opportunity to start, and even the players who are off the bench.”
Meanwhile, Whitecaps struggled in offense and defense. Vancouver’s average possession of 41.3% this season is the lowest in the Major League Soccer, and they are also at the bottom of the league in shots captured, with an average of eight per match. Whitecaps, an average of 17 shots per game, the most in the league.
Major League Soccer announced Saturday that the league will change how playoffs are awarded, using average points per team rather than total points. The Timbers are still in the play-offs, even with the sudden change of shape, after their win over the Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday.
The league’s decision came as multiple teams are on track to finish the season without playing their full 23-match schedule due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Colorado Rapids missed five matches due to multiple players and staff testing positive for the virus. Matches cannot be fabricated because MLS doesn’t want teams to play any regular season matches after the scheduled last day of the regular season, November 8th.
LAFC is the latest team to be sidelined with the virus after several positives, and their game scheduled for Sunday was canceled. The Timbers are supposed to play the LAFC match on November 8.
Last August, MLS Commissioner Don Garber acknowledged that teams will likely suffer from coronavirus-related disruptions and that the league faces “a lot of competitive balance problems” because of this. Rather than excluding teams that have allowed the COVID-19 outbreak to disrupt their season, Garber said it might be necessary to switch to a point rating for each match.
With the playoffs concluded, the Timbers are still technically in competition for the Supporters Shield, which goes to the top team during the regular season. The award will also be based on points for each game this year, leading the Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC.
Then, the Timbers host Colorado Rapids on Wednesday without fans. MLS Cup qualifiers begin November 20.
– Caitlin Murray, for The Oregonian / OregonLive
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