KBSR, Timbers @ FCC, 3.17.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

KeyBank Scouting Report: Lessons from LA, lineup changes, and the Cincinnati cauldron

BEAVERTON, Ore. – When the Portland Timbers flew to FC Dallas last season, they did so after one of their season’s worst losses – a 4-0 defeat at a New York Red Bulls team that had rested most of their starters amid Concacaf Champions League concerns. With two weeks to consider their performance, Giovanni Savarese’s squad delivered a turnaround performance, drawing with a Hoops side that wouldn’t lose their second league game until their season’s 15th round. The loss in Harrison, New Jersey, became a wakeup call.

Parallels between that defeat and what happened on Sunday in Los Angeles are obligatory, if still valuable. The 4-1 loss to LAFC felt too much like last year’s stumble in Harrison, yet Savarese, who verbalized his disappointment in the wake of last year’s result, struck a different note when, on Wednesday, he was asked to compare the two seasons’ shortfalls.

“Completely different story,” he said, about this year’s stumble. “This game had all the moments we needed to be better at, but (for) 60, 65 minutes of the match, we were in the game.

“We played very well. We did a lot of things. As usual, we need to be better in some aspects. We need to work. They capitalized in some good moments. Some players made good decisions in key moments. But ultimately, we’re happy with what we did and the way we created chances.”

For some fans, that sentiment reads as too optimistic, but that optimism likely comes down to whether you analyze things in terms of process or results. Sports is a bottom line business, with standings telling those bottom lines in each newspaper edition or web site view. Yet coaches can’t build their teams’ state without knowing how they got there. And in the hows of Sunday, Savarese sees a more mixed bag than “4-1” shows:

“Second half, we created chances to tie the game. We didn’t capitalize, and they were able to capitalize on the opportunities.

“Once they scored the third goal, it was a different game, and we need to be better. We need to continue to believe.  We need to continue to make sure that we keep on playing and give everything that we have through the entire match.”

That – the team’s mentality – is one area of focus as the team turns to its next match, on Sunday in Cincinnati (2pm PT, FS1). But as evidenced by Savarese’s focus, that mentality is less about a widespread problem than the impact of “moments” – the lapses in concentration that have led to seven goals conceded and only one point won through two weeks of the season. Whether your focus is process or results, those lapses need to stop.

Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report – three areas of focus ahead of the Timbers’ first-ever Major League Soccer meeting with FC Cincinnati.

1. Recovering from disappointment

It would not only be cliché to note the Timbers, after Sunday’s devastating loss, need to move on, it would be inaccurate. There are lessons to be taken from the loss to LAFC – notes of caution which, combined with what happened in Colorado, could quickly turn into alarms.

Four of the six open-play goals conceded by the Timbers this season have come from similar places: allowing opponents to get deep in the wide areas of the penalty box, giving passers license to hit balls with pace across the face of goal. Passes to those danger spots in the penalty area have to be managed better, Savarese said in Spanish on Wednesday, but not all of those opportunities are being generated in the same way.

“I think that there were some similar type of goals in the seven goals we’ve had scored against,” Savarese explained, “but they come from different moments. You see the end result, but there are all the things that happen before that we need to be better at.”

That’s what makes it so difficult to evaluate Portland’s defenders, right now. Center backs, like other players, have to be put in situations to succeed. Defending at the top of the six-yard box, tasked with both managing runners and playing a well-driven ball is not a formula for success. Not all chances from those areas result in goals, but too much is beyond a backline’s control once opponents reach those spots. Defending has to start before backs are against the wall,  because once defenders are deprived of their options, they’re akin to strikers who never get service.

That means better play in midfield, and more support from wingers. Savarese even motioned how the forwards defend, with organization, intelligence and pressure from Jeremy Ebobisse and Diego Valeri being so important to force high turnovers. There has been a lot of justified criticism of the team’s central defenders, Julio Cascante and Larrys Mabiala, over the last week, with the play of the fullbacks and midfield also drawing fan ire. But when players are being put in positions that are already low-percentage propositions, questions have to be asked of what happened before.

That has to be one of the main lessons from Sunday. In addition to the team being exploited in key moments, it’s the hows of those moments – how did LAFC get access to those dangerous spots – that have to be remembered in Cincinnati.

2. The lineup decisions, and life without Diego Chara

The year 2015 will always be a part of Timbers lore, but over the last two seasons, the number of references to the team’s MLS Cup run are starting to compete with another, more ominous, 2015 moment. That year was the last time Portland won an MLS game without Diego Chara.

It’s a fact that’s both easily explicable and, paradoxically, has defied explanation. Since he arrived in Portland, Chara has been the Timbers’ most important player, but there’s no viable vision of player value that sees one player’s absence take a team from a playoff level, on average, to one of the worst records in MLS history. With well over 20 games passed since their last Chara-less victory, the Timbers are below late-Chivas USA levels without their talisman on the field.

On Sunday, Chara will be out of the Timbers’ XI, having seen red in the second half of the team’s loss at LAFC. Whatever the problems of the past in playing without Chara, Portland needs to solve them, now.

“I think two things with that,” Savarese started, when asked about the team’s record without Chara. “(First,) Chara is that important. Two: Every record is broken.

“I don’t care what the chances are, we want to win every game. With Chara. With whoever is going to be on the field …

“He is a very, very important player, for us. Not only for us. He is a top player in the league. Any team will definitely want to have Chara on the team. But the reality is he is not available at the moment, and there’s other guys that I think will step up.”

One of the first questions a staff in this situation has to ask is whether to address the problem with quality or quantity. If you have the capacity to do a like-for-like swap, you can slide a backup into the lineup, keep your shape and tactics in place, and change as little as possible. If you don’t have that quality – and you can argue no team in MLS has the deep-midfield quality of Diego Chara – you might have to throw numbers at the problem.

That’s where the Timbers have strength. David Guzmán didn’t perform well in Los Angeles, but he’s still a viable option this weekend. So is a Paraguayan international (Cristhian Paredes), a Venezuelan international (Renzo Zambrano), a Salvadorian international (Andrés Flores), a New Zealand international (Bill Tuiloma) and a U.S. U-level standout (Eryk Williamson). Two other regular starters – Sebastián Blanco and Andy Polo – played through the middle at times last season, even if they’re more accustomed to their natural, wide roles. None of those players can replace Chara, but with their depth, the Timbers don’t lack options.

How to make those options work together is the bigger question, as is whether to go away from the two-man middle (which, Chara and Guzmán functionally are) to the type of three-man shape you’re more likely to see in a 5-3-2 or 4-3-3 formation – not the Timbers’ current 4-2-3-1. The team could also just adjust how Diego Valeri plays at the top of midfield and ask him to take a slightly more central role.

Those aren’t the only changes to look for. After a 4-1 loss, everything is on the table. Does the Mabiala-Cascante partnership persist? Does Jorge Moreira come into the backline? When does Lucas Melano get a chance up top? And what of the team’s other attacking options that have been on the bench: Dairon Asprilla and Tomás Conechny.

Portland made no changes to the starting lineup between weeks one and two. That spoke to the faith the coaching staff had in their first XI. After Sunday’s loss, is it time to change things up?

3. Cincinnati: A cauldron of emotion

Late-week reports had Nippert Stadium approaching a sell-out, an apt state for the first MLS game in what, at USL level, proved to be a soccer-crazed town. Cincinnati rode their fan support to Major League Soccer, with their quick rise seeing the club at the top level in less than four years. All those people who contributed to that rise? They’ll be at Nippert this weekend.

How that translates to the field remains to be seen, but the Timbers have to prepare for that emotion. Classically, the advice would be to ride out the first 10 or 15 minutes, stay compact and risk-adverse, and let the hosts’ energy and emotion start to weigh on them. Conversely, the hype could extend Cincinnati beyond what they do best, leaving opportunities to hit them going back toward their goal.

No matter how that first quarter-hour plays out, the game will eventually settle. When it does, the typical player-for-player, scheme-for-scheme matchups will take hold. And as it concerns Cincinnati, the name that jumps out first is a familiar one: former Timbers striker Fanendo Adi.

“It’s going to be great to see Alvas, Adi …,” Savarese said, also referencing Alvas Powell, the long-time Timbers defender who was traded to Cincinnati this offseason. “You always want to see players that you coached, players that have been part of a club. I think it’s going to be an exciting game for them, because I think, at his club, it’s important for them, as well.”

Another former Timbers player, Darren Mattocks, was acquired by Cincinnati this offseason, with Adi having been with the club since last spring.

“I hold Portland in very high esteem," Adi told The Oregonian this week. “They are a family to me. I still love Portland and the management and the players because they gave me everything. Portland will always be a place that I come back to.”

The physical matchup between Adi, Mabiala and Cascante is one the Timbers’ defenders prefer, with Mabiala telling Talk Timbers that he prefers the bruising battles to chasing players around. Still, there is a reason why Cincinnati, among others in the league, sought Adi out. His combination of strength and skill, as well as his proven MLS track record, make him a player that has to be accounted for.

He’s not the only one in Cincy’s lineup. Roland Lamah can’t be given space on the left. Swiss midfielder Leonardo Bertone has had a strong start to his MLS tenure. Both can rely on a defense filled with proven options, like former Vancouver Whitecaps FC center back Kendall Waston wearing the armband in the middle. Although this is an expansion team, it’s one filled with MLS talents.

Ride out the match’s initial emotion, and the Timbers will have a matchup they can handle: Their talent against their host’s. Before that? Nippert Stadium could be a cauldron.