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Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Timbers

FARLEY | Tight stretch off to strong start as Timbers' depth steps up

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Timbers’ early-season balancing act began in earnest on Saturday night, and successfully so. Thanks to goals from Dairon Asprilla and Cristhian Paredes, the Timbers opened the home portion of their Major League Soccer schedule with a victory, downing Houston Dynamo FC at Providence Park, 2-1, to start a four-game, 12-day stretch on a positive note.

"We had to think about not only today, but also think ahead [to] the stretch we are going to have, of the games that are coming," Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said, "and it was phenomenal to see the performances of guys coming in."

Beginning with Saturday’s game, the Timbers will alternate between MLS and Concacaf Champions League play over the next week and a half, moving on from their win over Houston to, on Wednesday, hosting duties against Mexico’s Club América. Next Saturday, the Timbers will be in Frisco, Texas, to face FC Dallas before traveling to Mexico City for the second leg of the CCL quarterfinal against América.

That stretch will test Portland’s depth as well as the coaching staff’s ability to manage its roster, but to the extent that test can be broken up into four smaller ones, the Timbers are off to a good start. On Saturday, Portland made six changes to the starting lineup that played last Sunday against Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and among the new starters, Blake Bodily, Pablo Bonilla and Bill Tuiloma contributed assists, while Paredes tallied the game-winning goal.

"It was not a surprise," Savarese said, of his players' performance. "I see these players every single practice. I see their desire. I see how much they’re improving. I see how much they want to participate and contribute to the team, and we saw it today."

Among those held over in Portland’s XI from the Vancouver game, three (Asprilla, Claudio Bravo, Diego Chara) played the full game against Houston. Yimmi Chara and Larrys Mabiala came off at halftime, giving way to two others who featured prominently against the Whitecaps: Diego Valeri and Dario Zuparic. Three more starters from last weekend — Felipe Mora, Eryk Williamson and Josecarlos Van Rankin — all came on in the second half, giving each of the Timbers’ regular field starters some needed minutes.

In that way, Saturday’s success wasn’t just about a contrast between starters and depth. It was about how those two worlds meshed, and how that combination helped the team cope. The night’s first goal may have been scored early by Asprilla, who has started every game thus far this season, but it was set up by a great play on the flank from Bonilla, who was himself aided by Bodily. On the night’s final score, it was Paredes’ rocket through a Dynamo crowd that proved unstoppable, but it came after a stellar layoff from Mora, who was served a great ball from the other end of the field by Tuiloma.

"We do the work every single day at practice to make sure that we're ready for situations like this," Bodily said. "I feel like everyone, not just me, is ready when their name is called so, as you can tell, the bench came on today and did a very good job. I think everyone's prepared when their names are called and that goes to a testament to Gio and the rest of the staff in getting us ready.”

For over three years, the Timbers’ roster construction has tried to make depth a competitive advantage. The approach was born of the moves the team made before and early in the 2018 season, and it’s carried forward to today. Last year, it helped at the MLS Is Back Tournament, where new sets of attackers were able to come on in the second half of games and use fresh legs to attack defenses. This year, it’s supposed to help in moments like these. When turnaround times between games get tight and players’ loads need to be carefully monitored, depth becomes vital. It means CCL and MLS doesn’t have to be an either-or.

"Hopefully, in this stretch of matches we can have everybody on the field," Savarese explained. "That way everybody can share minutes, everybody can participate, and the important thing is to continue to work very hard and now we analyze this match, we’ll look at the things that we need to improve, and prepare for what is coming on Wednesday."

Of course, it should be recognized that Portland’s depth is especially stretched, right now. Four starting-caliber players (Steve Clark, Jeremy Ebobisse, Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Sebastián Blanco) are unavailable, while two players who might have been in contention to play on Saturday (Aljaz Ivacic and Ismaila Jome) are also out. Combined with the need to monitor minutes, the Timbers were short on options.

On Saturday, though, Portland still had enough. They had more than enough, you could say. They outshot the Dynamo 23-10. This wasn’t just a matter of a team squeaking by.

Instead, it was players like Bonilla who fueled a strong performance. And Bodily. And Paredes, Tuiloma, Jeff Attinella and Marvin Loría. All came into the lineup when needed. All helped get the Timbers into their MLS win column. Portland’s four-game, 12-day stretch is off to a good start.

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