The 2018 Portland Timbers are still deeply flawed. But they aren't winless anymore.
In try number six, seven years to the day after they first took the field at Providence Park in MLS play, the Timbers saw off Minnesota United by a razor thin three goals to two for their first victory of the year and first of Giovani Savarese's top-flight career.
Like everything else so far this spring, it didn't come easily. The Timbers raced out to a two goal lead before the half hour mark, but Minnesota largely pummeled them from there — creating chance after chance, twice pulling to within a goal, and ultimately falling just short in the building where they were thumped 5-1 on opening night last year.
Portland has serious work to do. But Savarese now has his win, and with the old stadium rocking again, it feels like the new season has finally started for real.
The Timbers Army got the party started on Saturday night, but after the game kicked off, it was an unexpected source who jumpstarted what would turn into a hugely entertaining game.
With twenty minutes played, Alvas Powell received a pass on the righthand touchline, just over the midfield stripe, and took off. He blew past Marc Burch, turned Francisco Calvo, and this time — instead of crossing, as he'd done at the end of a similar run minutes before — reared back and rifled the ball past Matt Lampson.
Lampson, beaten on his near post by the pace of the shot and perhaps his surprise at its origin, should have done better. But it shouldn't have been entirely unexpected. Powell has figured out over the last year or so that his speed can get anywhere on the field he wants at any time, and that includes the goalmouth.
Two minutes later, Powell popped up in a crossing position on the wing. His effort skimmed off Miguel Ibarra and went whizzing towards the near post, where Diego Valeri got inside of Calvo and flicked it past Lampson to make it 2-0.
It was an instinctual finish from Valeri — who has now scored in three straight games — and it looked like the end of Minnesota, a team so often done in during its first year in the league by its penchant for conceding soft goals in bunches.
But this Loons team, which included a first Designated Player in Darwin Quintero, didn't go away. Instead, it spent the rest of the first half laying the groundwork for what was to come in the second — playing some excellent, intricate soccer, and nearly, on multiple occasions, pulling a goal back.
The best of those intricate passing moves actually ended with Ibarra sliding the ball into the net, but video review nabbed him marginally offside and erased the goal.
Minnesota's next best chance came some ten minutes later. Burch had all day deep on the left wing to pick out a cross, and he hit Ibarra in the middle, but Jake Gleeson turned away his header at full stretch to keep it a two goal game going into the break.
It was an enthralling half. The pace was excellent, chances were coming in droves, and both teams shared a real intensity that — at this stage of the season particularly, Providence Park instills into games like almost no other venue can.
Portland was still fairly comfortable, though Minnesota's ability to create chances through possession was a cause for concern. In the second half, that concern would escalate and fast.
Far from being dispirited by the halftime score, the Loons only got more dangerous after the restart. Adrian Heath made a good move in bringing off the overmatched Burch for rookie Carter Manley, but the biggest reason for the Minnesota threat was that Quintero got acclimated in a hurry.
Mostly contained in the first half, the little Colombian was a terror in the second. He almost setup a tap-in header for Christian Ramirez and scored a bicycle kick early on, but his zenith came just after the hour mark when he fielded a pass from Manley, spun by Diego Chara, got a step on Zarek Valentin, and hit a low shot underneath Gleeson to make it 2-1.
The goal was no more, and arguably still less, than the Loons deserved. They had the Timbers pinned deep into their defensive half, and were continually finding spaces between Portland's midfield and defensive lines.
Savarese switched from the 4-3-2-1 into a 4-4-1-1 to try to get more numbers into midfield, especially in wide areas, but looked for a time like an unwelcome replay of the Timbers' collapses in Chicago and Orlando. After such a promising start, they were shutting up shop.
This time, though, the Timbers would get an all-important third goal — and it'd come courtesy of a player in Fanendo Adi whose fortunes have so often mirrored this team's since he arrived in Portland almost four years ago.
With just more than fifteen minutes to play, the Nigerian started a break by sending a pass wide for Blanco and continuing his run into the box, which Blanco looked off to play a deep cross to the back post for Valeri, who cushioned a header for the late-arriving Cristhian Paredes, whose half volley Adi redirected in.
It was the best moment of the night. Adi wears his struggles very visibly, and he'd labored through the beginning of the season to the point that he had been benched — twice — for a clearly inferior player in Sam Armenteros.
But this was a goalscorer's finish after a hard night's work, and it was little surprise when, two minutes later, the big man had the ball in the net again after holding off Manley and firing past Lampson — only for it to also be ruled out for a marginal offside.
Had that goal counted, it would have harkened back to last year's late Timbers barrage in this game. It remained 3-1 instead, and Minnesota would score next when Quintero's ball over the top was redirected past Gleeson by a retreating Bill Tuiloma.
Again, so close to pulling away, the Timbers were dragged into a nail-shredding fight to the finish. In the end, though, they got there. Minnesota continued to build well, but never got a clean look at the equalizer.
For the Loons, it was both a bitter defeat and a tantalizing performance. Heath called his team's concession of the first two goals "criminal," but 56 percent possession and almost 500 passes in Portland is no joke.
The Timbers, on the other hand, showed flashes. Collectively, in terms of their balance, in terms of their consistency, there is still much to be concerned about. The defense is suspect, anchored by a goalkeeper in Gleeson who runs as hot and cold — often in the same match — as any in MLS.
If anything, it was the absolute euphoria of returning home after such a long time away that was the difference for the Timbers. Savarese, coaching his first game in Portland, was blown away.
"The energy, the atmosphere... you can only explain it when you're here," he said afterwards. "You have an expectation, but being here surpasses any expectation that you can have. That's why these are the best fans in the United States."
Amen to that. The Timbers are unbeaten in MLS home openers, unbeaten in their last fifteen home openers dating back to their A-League days. To have the chance to be a part of and add to that history, for Savarese and each member of his team, has to feel rather special.
The Timbers are back — at home, and in the win column. Right where they belong.