Draw in Atlanta, 11-game run validate Portland Timbers' contenders credentials

The streak is at 11, now, an imposing mark made all the more impressive by the litmus tests that have come through.

As, during the spring, the Portland Timbers' unbeaten run grew, the June matches against MLS' conference leaders, Sporting Kansas City and Atlanta United FC, loomed large, creating two clear, make-or-break moments for a still melding Timbers squad.

Now, on the other side of those tests, it's time to draw some conclusions. The 0-0 result on June 9 against visiting Sporting may have carried an air of points lost, but now, after today's 1-1 tie in Atlanta, there's a larger sample size to draw from. And increasingly, that sample size says the Timbers are for real.

"The most important thing is that people know we're a difficult team to defeat," head coach Giovanni Savarese offered as his coda from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. "That's very important for us. We just have to continue to build, continue to grow, continue to be better. But overall, everyone that plays against us knows we're not going to be easy to play against."

The standings still have the Timbers in fifth in the Western Conference, albeit with the conference's fourth-best points-per-game rate. But that total also includes the five-match learning phase that opened the season. Since then, Portland is 6-0-3 in league and two for two in U.S. Open Cup, creating a stretch of form to rival what any team has accumulated this season.

Among the conclusions is an obvious one – that the Timbers have to be considered legitimate contender, at this point – but that the whys behind that conclusion take many forms. There's the play of individuals like Sebastián Blanco, Diego Chara, Larrys Mabiala and Jeff Attinella, among others, that help explain the team's turnaround, but there's also the ingenuity of Savarese, who's game-to-game adjustments – as well as the turnaround he's engineered from that five-match, road start – warrant some early MLS Coach of the Year consideration.

Yet on the day the Timbers faced a former club icon for the first time, it seems only right to talk about how the club's depth has enabled this run. Darlington Nagbe will rightly be remembered as one of the first true stars of the club's MLS era, and it would have always taken a Godfather-like deal to put him in another uniform. But as the 2018 season goes on and the returns on his departure are made clear, it's becoming more and more obvious how transformational that offseason trade was.

Portland made four major Targeted Allocation Money acquisitions this winter, with those signings made far easier by the bounty the team acquired in the Nagbe trade. Of those four, Samuel Armenteros, Julio Cascante, and Cristhian Paredes were all in the starting XI against Atlanta, while the fourth, Andy Polo, is with Peru at the World Cup.

Nagbe has incredible value, but as we've seen over the Timbers' 11 game run, the ability to meet MLS' challenges with four quality, starting-level players is huge. And while some of those players would have surely been signed if Nagbe were never dealt, Portland's deal with Atlanta helped the Timbers transform into a deeper, more versatile squad.

That depth has also helped Savarese instill a mentality which, from his Tuesday press conference, he identified as indispensable to the team's improvement. As a technical staff, you can't demand your players commit to competing for their spots on a practice-to-practice basis unless your depth allows you to back that up. With arguably the deepest first-team squad in MLS, Savarese has been able to make that idea into an ethos, one that's enabled him and his staff to adjust to every challenge.

The 4-3-2-1 formation that brought the team back from its slow start? It helped reinforce the theme of responsibility – responsibility to what you're being asked to accomplish. The recent uses of a 4-2-3-1 (against San Jose, in the Open Cup), a 4-2-3-1 (against the LA Galaxy, also in the Open Cup) and today's 5-3-2 were born from the same expectations, one that were no different from when Savarese used a surprise 4-1-4-1 to claim a 3-0 victory over New York City FC. Through all the changes – the different formations we've seen throughout the Timbers' run – there's been a basic expectation: That everybody who goes out there is capable of doing their job.

As of the San Jose game in Open Cup, every player on an MLS contract had appeared in a first-team game this year. And it was only June 6; only 13 games into the season. Even at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, against arguably the best team in Major League Soccer, that depth and approach were on display. After all, who would have thought at the beginning of this unbeaten run that Cascante, Jeremy Ebobisse and Lawrence Olum would be part of the team's most important game of the season, let alone players like Andrés Flores, Bill Tuiloma (in midfield, no less), Paredes and Zarek Valentin who, in January, most didn't expect to have large roles.

It's that depth that provides Savarese with the ability to go to improvise a 5-3-2, as well as be more tactically flexible than any Timbers team we've seen before. But within that flexibility, and the competition between players to improve their spots, you get a mentality that leads to today's result.

The Timbers played a new shape, with some still relatively new personnel, and got a result on the road, against the most talented team in the league. That's a hell of a conclusion for a staff and team that, together for five months, is still growing into their potential. After Sunday, now 11 games into an unbeaten run, it might be time for Major League Soccer to take notice.

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