Photo courtesy Diego Diaz / Portland Timbers 2
PORTLAND, Ore. – From the moment Villyan Bijev scored to give the Portland Timbers 2 the lead 10 minutes before halftime against Arizona United SC on Saturday night, until the moment United’s Chris Cortez curled home a free kick with 18 minutes to go to cut Portland’s lead to one, it seemed T2 was on its way to the 2016 USL Cup Playoffs.
But despite holding on to a 3-2 victory at Merlo Field in their final regular season contest, the Timbers 2 were denied a playoff berth as their second-half concession and Orange County’s late flurry of goals sent the Blues to the postseason, leaving Portland to wonder what might have been.
“I’m really proud of the team,” said T2 forward Augustine Williams, whose third goal since joining the side leveled the game after Arizona had struck first. “We came out to get the win today. We came out strong. … We couldn’t make it into the playoffs, but I hope next year we can come back stronger and dominate.”
Williams’ low finish from the right side of the penalty area saw Bijev pick up his 10th assist of the season, which moved the rookie into the league-lead in that category, and Bijev then struck twice before the halftime break to earn a 3-1 lead, and expand T2’s goal differential advantage over Orange County to two goals. With five goals and four assists over T2’s final six games of the season, Bijev’s progression matched that of the team as a whole.
“Bijev found his comfort zone,” said Portland Coach Andrew Gregor. “He was a bit unlucky to begin the year as far as some opportunities that were missed. He was just unlucky on hitting the post or the goalie making an amazing save. It was good to see him come into form. He’s a good personality. He’s a good pro. He worked hard. He’s a good character guy that is good for this club. I was pleased that he got an award for continuing to dig as the season went on.”
Portland remained on course for a playoff berth as the second half went on, even as Arizona pulled its way back into the game in the opening 25 minutes. Even when Cortez struck for Arizona with 18 minutes to go, T2 remained up on both goal differential and goals scored.
But then, with Portland looking to restore its two-goal lead, Orange County struck. A pair of goals by Trevin Caesar three minutes apart sent the Blues from one goal behind T2 to one goal in front, and suddenly Portland’s postseason dreams were shattered.
Despite the disappointment, Gregor said he was pleased with the manner in which the side had closed the season, and hoped it would carry forward into the 2017 season.
“I think they did a really good job to win five games in a row to end the season,” Gregor said. “I think you see what some of these guys are capable of doing. There were very good performances, not only from the team, but individuals at the end of the season.
“I think it’s important for them to understand confidence-wise what they’re capable of doing, but they also have to remember that this wasn’t there at the beginning of the year. They evolved and developed and they need to take that confidence and continue moving forward with it.”
That five-game run to end the season certainly put a silver lining on the season for Williams, who figures to be an integral part of T2 next season.
“For us, it’s a huge improvement,” Williams said. “When I first joined the team, we had lost a couple of games. We then got the motivation to make the playoffs. That kept us going. We wanted to go out there to do everything we can to win every game. I was happy that we had a great run.”