Despite only having three days to rest, the Portland Timbers are headed to the semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, Florida after defeating NYCFC 3-1 in the quarterfinals.
"We could have come into this match and complained and said ‘we have less days, we’re tired, we have players that haven’t rested enough,'" said head coach Giovanni Savarese. "But it’s about figuring things out and the players coming and showing up. At the end of the day, all that you planned only works when at the end, you get a win."
The Timbers did just that despite falling behind early on a dubious penalty kick call that gave NYCFC a 1-0 lead in the 27th minute.
"We had a slow start," said Savarese. "We had some moments in which we were a little bit exposed. We tried to make sure that we defended well, but then we opened ourselves a little bit."
However, with Diego Valeri on the bench due to the quick turnaround, the Timbers got an equalizer right before halftime when Sebastian Blanco caught a rebound inside the box and converted the shot into the back of the net to level Portland, 1-1 heading into the half.
"The response was fantastic from the guys to be able to equalize and go into the locker rooms 1-1," said Savarese. "That was very important. We had to lift up towards the end of the first half our play. The ball movement, the space that we were taking, but we had a plan in place and part of the plan guys executed."
Heading back onto the pitch for the second half, Savarese had Diego Valeri replace Marvin Loría in the eleven as he planned going into the match.
"[Marvin] Loría. Loría played 45 minutes in which he did his job. He did what we asked him to do and it was perfect. We had a plan for [Diego] Valeri to come in at halftime."
How did Valeri do? Only scored the go-ahead goal, assisted by designated player Jaroslaw Niezgoda, in the 65th minute to pull the Timbers in front, 2-1.
"He came in and he contributed in a big way," Valeri's head coach said of him. "He was fresh, was able to find good pockets, created opportunities, and was fantastic, like [Andy] Polo, like all the players today played at top level.”
Speaking of Andy Polo, when Savarese called his number in the 74th minute to replace Eryk Williamson it took him exactly one minute and eleven seconds to wow everyone watching.
There was a reason that Polo took that strike with confidence.
"It was a very important goal today. The execution was perfect," recalls Savarese. "He’s been training that, he didn’t say it, but he’s been training everyday. So, it’s not something that just came today, he’s been putting the ball there in practice."
Polo's celebration of what could easily be the goal of the year for the Timbers was what really stole the show, however. And then the backstory only makes it better.
"In regards to my celebration, it was for my daughter, really," said Polo who scored only his second goal in a Portland uniform. "She was asking me for that celebration, and I just wanted to give that to her."
While Polo's goal and celebration was the talk of Timbers Twitter, the Peruvian forward gave Blanco credit for the assist: "It was a great assist by Seba."
In fact, Blanco has been all over the stat sheet for Portland so far this tournament with two goals and five assists.
"Seba [Sebastián Blanco] has been great in this tournament," Savarese said of Blanco, who scored a goal and had an assist Saturday evening. "We know what we have in him. He shows that every single practice, every single day when he’s with us."
Also, not to bury the lead, but the contest was the 300th match of Diego Chara's MLS career. All 300 games have been in a Portland Timbers uniform.
"Today was a special day because it was [Diego] Chara’s 300th match," said Savarese. "So it was meaningful and very important for us that we wanted Chara to remember it in a very special way.”
“There’s no better way to play my 300th game with the same jersey, the Timbers jersey. I’m very happy, proud of this team," Chara told reporters following the game. "I feel really happy to make my 300th game with the Timbers jersey.”
Now, the Timbers will shift their focus to the Philadephia Union who is awaiting them in the semifinals, where Savarese will once again call on his players to get a win despite less rest than the opponent.
"Now we’re going to have also less days. We have to figure it out, but the heart of the guys, the way they’re going about it has been fantastic.
"They make me feel very proud and also, that experience they have collected throughout the years, players like [Sebastián] Blanco, [Diego] Valeri, like [Diego] Chara, and all of them, we have seen a great equilibrium in them and we strongly hope they continue this trend because Philadelphia’s going to be a very difficult team.”
Portland will play the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday, August 5th at 5:00 p.m. PT in the semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament.