The Portland Timbers squeezed past the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference semi-finals on Thursday night. It is their ability to produce moments that makes them dangerous in the MLS Playoffs.
After 68 minutes, almost nothing had happened. For the Portland Timbers, who were defending a 2-1 lead from the first leg, that was precisely what they wanted. Nothing.
And then, suddenly, with a Jeff Attinella spillage and Raul Ruidiaz finish, the Seattle Sounders, and the match, for that matter, burst into life.
The momentum was with the Sounders. For a total of ten minutes. Sebastian Blanco, a revelation this season who has added a much-needed edge to the Timbers, rifled home a low shot into the bottom corner, spraying the fingers of Stefan Frei on its way into the goal.
But Ruidiaz and the Sounders were not finished. A poor clearance by Blanco, a thumping volley. All-square in added time. Extra-time beckoned.
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For a lesser team, it would have been easy to crumble at this point. They had worked so tirelessly for the goal advantage, only to throw it all away in the dying seconds. But then another Timbers moment came and changed the game again.
Diego Valeri, the chief proprietor of these individual instances, crossed from the right, finding Dairon Asprilla, a notoriously wasteful finisher who is known for little more than being extremely athletic, infuriating and productive in the playoffs, who duly headed the ball back whence it came, nestling into the far corner of the goal, Frei again sprawling at thin air, futile to prevent such a timely finish.
But the Sounders were not finished. A Blanco handball gifted Nicolas Lodeiro the perfect opportunity to equalise. He did not squander it, converting the penalty with a wonderful composure. This match still had a long way to go. A lot longer than the Timbers themselves realised.
Come to the end of the extra-time and there was a strange celebration going on among the Timbers players. For some reason, they thought it was over, forgetting that the away-goals rule did not take effect in extra-time. To penalties, then.
And in penalties, those same players that created the moments in the match, both good and bad, stepped up to the plate. Valeri scored the Timbers’ second penalty. Then Blanco converted his, immediately after Will Bruin had missed his, handing the advantage securely to Portland. And then Osvaldo Alonso had his penalty saved by Attinella. And finally, to finish it all of, Asprilla was the man to score the winning penalty, smashing his through the hands of Frei for one final time.
This Timbers team is disciplined in defence, compact and combative in midfield, and capable of individual moments in attack. It is this combination of a sturdy, structured, well-drilled, industrious foundation and the players to produce those moments of magic that makes them such a dangerous prospect in the MLS Playoffs.
Whoever they face in the Western Conference Championship, Portland will cause problems. And it is all because nothing can happen for 68 minutes and then they explode into life just when it matters most.