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Portland Timbers clinch playoff spot as San Jose Earthquakes season ends

Call him ‘Mr. October’ because Dairon Asprilla has sent the Timbers to the playoffs.

With a game-winner from unlikely hero Dairon Asprilla, the Portland Timbers punched their ticket to the MLS postseason with a scrappy 3-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes on MLS Decision Day.

Both the Timbers and the Earthquakes were playing for their MLS lives in the final day of the regular season. The Timbers needed a win or a draw to secure a playoff spot because FC Dallas elsewhere led their game from the ninth minute onward, and the Earthquakes needed a win to assure their own spot.

“If we got a tie or a loss and got in, the mood going into the playoffs would feel as if we snuck in,” Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse said after the game. “A big resounding win today is the right way to end our body of work for the regular season. It shows that we’re a team that can attack, a team that can defend, and a team that should be feared.”

With the win, the Timbers finish in sixth place in the Western Conference and will travel to face third-place Real Salt Lake in the first round of the playoffs.

The Timbers, in front of their home crowd at Providence Park, were without the club’s most expensive signing ever, Brian Fernandez, and the club’s all-time leading scorer, Diego Valeri, but goals from Asprilla, Larrys Mabiala and Sebastian Blanco were enough to overcome the Earthquakes and all-time MLS leading scorer, Chris Wondolowski.

“The players showed that in big moments, they show up,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said after the game. “They come today with unbelievable energy, they stick to the plan and they play a fantastic game.”

Oct 6, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski (8) heads the ball for a goal during the first half against Portland Timbers defender Bill Tuiloma (25) at Providence Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Timbers struck first in the 29th minute on the follow-up after a set piece. A Blanco free kick was knocked out to Asprilla, who laid it off to Jorge Villafana. At the edge of the box, Villafana delivered a low skipping cross to Mabiala, who tapped the ball past goalkeeper Daniela Vega one-time.

Ten minutes later, the Earthquakes equalized on a similar goal from the team’s captain and the MLS goals record-holder. After a set piece, Cristian Espinoza lofted a ball into the box and Wondolowski volleyed it past goalkeeper Steve Clark.

But Portland’s recurring surprise hero has been Asprilla, who again scored when it counted most, despite struggles during the earlier portions of the regular season. In the 59th minute, Asprilla dribbled into the box and fired a shot, which Vega blocked, but Asprilla fired the loose ball home.

Asprilla scored a deciding penalty kick last week in Kansas City to ensure the Timbers came away with a much-need draw. Last season he scored in the playoffs against the Seattle Sounders to help the Timbers advance to MLS Cup. Otherwise, Asprilla’s shot-to-goal conversion rate has been one of the lowest in MLS.

Just a month ago, Asprilla seemed to be in the dog house after he slowly and petulantly walked off when subbed out in a game where the Timbers needed a goal, and then refused a handshake from Savarese. When the Timbers didn’t have enough players available to fill the 18-man bench in the next game, Asprilla was left out for a coach’s decision.

“I saw something in him that he was hungry to prove himself and come back and do the right things,” Savarese said after Sunday’s win. “Today he worked very much — besides the goal it was the amount of work he put in.”

“I didn’t put him in because he’s Mr. October or November,” Savarese added, referring to the reputation Asprilla has earned for his big playoff performances.

Blanco added the insurance goal in the 75th minute on a gorgeous free kick strike.

On Sunday, the Timbers were without Diego Valeri and Brian Fernandez, two players who had a combined 19 goals and 17 assists this season. Fernandez was suspended from a controversial red card he earned in Kansas City last week. Valeri was out with a calf injury, which means he may had already played his last match at Providence Park if ongoing contract negotiations with the Timbers continue at an impasse. The Timbers very likely won’t have a chance to host any playoff games.

The Timbers, who have felt aggrieved by recent refereeing decisions, again felt they should’ve been awarded a penalty kick Sunday in the 34th minute when a ball bounced off Nick Lima’s knee but the referee apparently determined it was ball-to-hand.

At halftime, Savarese told ESPN his team played well but: “Another PK we don’t get, which I think was a PK.” Even the Timbers’ official Twitter account tweeted sarcastically at the Professional Referees Organization and asked “Did we offend you?”

The non-penalty call didn’t end up mattering as the Timbers earned their first win in six games, a crucial win at home. The Timbers have lost five games at home this season, their most since 2011, the year the Timbers joined MLS.

The Timbers will have to compete in the playoffs on the road now, and will head to Salt Lake City to open playoffs on Oct. 19 or 20.

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