The Portland Timbers posted two draws this past week before heading into MLS’ two-week Gold Cup break. On July 1, they traveled to Kansas City where they faced Western Conference leaders Sporting KC. Diego Valeri scored a goal that would once again put him in the running for Goal of the Week, but he would later have a penalty kick attempt saved, and the Timbers would have to settle for a point on the road. That is a result they could be happy with, especially against the top team in the West, but missing a penalty and three points made them all the more inspired to beat the Eastern Conference’s best team, the Chicago Fire, when they faced them at Providence Park on July 5th.
The only change in the lineup from the Sporting Kansas City match to the Chicago match was Zarek Valentin replacing Alvas Powell at right back. Both teams were missing several players due to international call ups or injury, but the key attackers for both teams were all on the pitch, including MLS’ current top scorer, Chicago’s Nemanja Nikolić, who entered the game with 16 goals in 19 matches. The Fire hadn’t reached the top of the Eastern Conference standings by relying on a single goal scorer. Chicago midfielder David Accam came to Portland with 10 goals and 6 assists under his belt, identical stats as Valeri.
The keys for Portland heading into the match were that Valentin would need to control Accam—something not many teams have been able to do so far this season. Valeri, Sebastián Blanco, and Darlington Nagbe (who completed 52 passes in 52 attempts against Kansas City) would need to control the midfield, taking advantage of the fact that Chicago would be missing several of their best players in that part of the field. And finally, Fanendo Adi would need to put in a dominant performance either by scoring himself, or by drawing defenders and opening up space for his teammates.
Adi looked dangerous from the opening whistle, nearly scoring on two early headers, one off a corner kick and one off a cross by Blanco. Another early positive sign for Portland was that midfielder Dairon Asprilla was absolutely dominating his side of the field. The pressure Portland was putting on Chicago finally paid off in the 23rd minute when an awkward handball in the box lead to a Timbers PK. Adi converted and the Timbers went up 1-0.
A minute later, Chicago fans were hoping for a PK call of their own when Accam beat several defenders and looked to be taken down as he drove into the box. The Fire got their goal in the 34th minute, though, when a cross to Nikolić found it’s way into the far post side netting. Nikolić, who is currently on pace to break the MLS all time single season scoring record, was initially credited with the goal, but at halftime he told a member of the Chicago media that he did not touch the ball, and the goal went to his teammate Arturo Alvarez instead. The Timbers nearly answered two minutes later when a Valeri bicycle kick sailed wide of the goal.
Portland’s next opportunity came twelve minutes into the second half when Fanendo Adi was set loose in the box with only the keeper to beat, but he was unable to finish. As the game went on, both teams continued to demonstrate excellent end to end defense, until the 61st minute, when Portland defender Roy Miller gave away the ball near midfield, leading to a quick counter attack and a Chicago goal.
It wouldn’t take long for Portland to answer, though, as Blanco found the equalizer in the 70th minute. After playing the ball out wide to the right, Blanco continued a run into the box, eventually taking a through ball from Valeri and finding the back of the net from about twelve yards out. Before the goal, Portland had been called offsides six times. The Timbers finally got their timing right and capitalized on a combination of perfect positioning by Blanco and patient, clinical distribution by Valeri.
From that point on, Chicago looked happy to make it out of the match with a draw, but the Timbers nearly spoiled that in the 91st minute when substitute Marco Farfan sent a cross to Adi at the far post which Adi went up for and headed in. The goal was called off, however, as Adi was whistled for a two-handed shove in the back, which the replay showed was why he was able to beat his defender so easily to the cross. He actually shoved his defender away twice in a matter of seconds, but was called for the infraction that led to the goal.
Portland had one last chance in the final seconds of the match, when Valentin tried to set up Adi for some last second heroics, but the decisive goal would not come. Although they did not get the win, despite a number of great chances, Portland came away looking strong against one of the best teams they’ve played all year. At the end of the match, both Adi and Valeri had 10 goals on the season, and midfielders Nagbe and Blanco proved once again that they are just starting to get hot.
The team looked good, both on the attack and on defense. After the game, coach Caleb Porter spoke highly of their efforts, saying, “We are getting better every single game and today we showed everything that I want this team to represent. It is how I wanted to play: keep the ball, create chances, dominate, press, be organized, play in transition, play with confidence, play with an aggressive mentality. Everything that I want to see out of this team I saw today except for three points.”