VANCOUVER — Caleb Porter spent the last few days trying to patch together a lineup with injuries, suspensions and international duty ravaging his roster.
At the final whistle Sunday, the head coach of the Portland Timbers pumped a jubilant and relieved fist in celebration before hugging his assistants — a reaction not usually seen after a July match in Major League Soccer.
Sebastian Blanco scored early in the second half as the undermanned Timbers snapped a six-game winless streak with a gutsy 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Portland dressed just 16 players instead of the usual 18, with Porter having to call up two members of the club's USL affiliate to fill out his bench.
"This was one of those moments that remind you as a coach of why you roll up your sleeves and go to war every single day," said Porter. "There have been a lot of bullets flying everywhere, and we brought that on ourselves, but some of it has been just really unlucky."
Portland strikers Fanendo Adi and Victor Arboleda were suspended for Sunday, while midfielders Darlington Nagbe and David Guzman, defender Alvas Powell, and forward Darren Mattocks remained away on CONCACAF Gold Cup duty.
"I said to the guys all week and I reminded them before the game that when it's easy, it's easy to do things right, and it's easy to go out and be confident and play well," said Porter, who also had five players out injured. "It's not easy when results aren't going your way, it's not easy when you have a thin roster.
"I knew that I would see the best out of them."
Porter and Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson, who have butted heads in the past, had less-than-friendly exchange moments after the game ended.
"I just said 'congratulations' to him. That was it," said Robinson, playing his cards close to the chest.
"It's between Carl and I," said Porter. "We shook hands ... there's a comment and I didn't care for it."
Jeremy Ebobisse scored Portland's other goal in his MLS first start, while Andrew Jacobson replied for Vancouver.
Blanco gave his team its second lead in the 49th minute when the Argentine midfielder sliced through the Whitecaps defence before a kind bounce resulted in him getting the ball back on a nifty backheel from Ebobisse and rolling his fourth past a helpless David Ousted to send the Timbers' boisterous travelling supporters at B.C. Place Stadium into a frenzy.
"First half we played exceptionally well, got the equalizer just before halftime," said Robinson. "When you give a good team like Portland the lead five minutes into the second half, it's very difficult."
Vancouver (8-8-3) was coming off consecutive wins — 3-2 over New York City FC at home on July 5 and Wednesday's 1-0 road triumph over the Los Angeles Galaxy — while Portland (8-8-6) entered play on a 0-3-3 run.
The Timbers, who started the season 5-2-1, picked up their first victory in MLS since June 10. Portland now sits three points up on Vancouver for fourth in the Western Conference, but the Whitecaps do have three games in hand.
"I think 'frustrating' is a good word for it," said Ousted. "We weren't good enough, simple as that."
The Timbers grabbed an unexpected early lead thanks to some sloppy play in Vancouver's penalty area. The Whitecaps cleared a corner only as far as Blanco, who fed Dairon Asprilla on the right. Asprilla in turn fired a shot across the face of goal that Ebobisse got a piece of for the rookie's first in MLS.
"We've seen a lot of flashes from him in training," Porter said of Ebobisse, the fourth pick at the 2017 draft. "Even though (at) this moment he's kind of third behind two very good strikers in Adi and Mattocks, we had a lot of confidence in him."
Vancouver got an equalizer in the 45th minute when defender Tim Parker, wearing the captain's armband with Kendall Waston not yet available after playing for Costa Rica at the Gold Cup, got his head to a corner at the near post before Jacobson redirected the ball over the line for his second.
Looking for a spark after Blanco gave Portland the lead, Robinson brought on midfielders Yordy Reyna and Alphonso Davies, who scored three times for Canada at the Gold Cup, in quick succession near the hour mark.
Brek Shea also subbed on soon after and had a great chance in the 80th minute, but Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson was there to make the save.
Gleeson was at it again in the 85th when he stopped Parker's header off a Vancouver free kick, but the Whitecaps couldn't muster much more in a bitterly disappointing result — a game that seemed there for the taking against a weakened but determined opponent.
"My attacking players were a little bit off. The final balls weren't great," said Robinson, whose team now hits the road for three straight. "Sometimes you have to accept that, and we will today.
"It does hurt when you lose a big game."
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