BEAVERTON, Ore. – There is a tightrope the Portland Timbers players and coaches have had to walk this week, one extending over a precarious present, holding taught between their past and future.
Standing on this line, exposed by an 0-4-1 start, there is balance between two ideas: a reverence for the past, one that demands perspective on a disappointing start; and the urgency a team needs to return to the standard they’ve sought.
“It’s recognizing where we are,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, when asked what the most important improvement his team could make this week. “It’s being realistic that our performance, especially last game, wasn’t one to make us proud.”
It sounds like an obvious solution in the wake of a 3-0 loss at the San Jose Earthquakes, but in the sports world, psychology can be a very delicate thing. More often than not, you want to focus on being your best. Your best training. Your best workout. Your best performance. Mentally, you want to live in the upside of your potential.
It’s an inherently positive thing. No matter where you are in a process, you spent more time thinking about the greener grass than the turf you’re standing on.
“We can analyze and go back to the Galaxy, which was a very good match,” Savarese said, referring to the close, 2-1 loss in Carson, California, the week before, “but then we don’t respond equally to the following match. It’s finding exactly where we are, being realistic about where we are, and putting in the work.”
Work was also a solution defender Larrys Mabiala prescribed during Wednesday’s media availability at the Timbers Training Center. “We are putting a lot of work to rebound, in this situation,” he said, explaining, “I always believe that hard work pays off.”
But work was only one solution that Mabiala and his center-back partner, Bill Tuiloma, provided on Wednesday. Unity, something that appeared lacking as the team struggled through Saturday’s first half in San Jose, California, was also central to their focus.
“For me, the players sticking together, staying strong,” is key, Tuiloma said. “We know it’s a long season. We’re sticking strong in the mentality of the team, the chemistry of the team. We’re just going forward and being positive.”
“We all make mistakes,” he explained, “and we just need that boost from each other – encouraging one another.”
Savarese alluded to similar issues during his Wednesday press conference, describing San Jose’s man-marking defensive scheme as an issue that fed into the Timbers’ not giving “the effort I expected,” in the first half. Though he was complimentary of the team’s second-half response, Savarese was still forced to take responsibility for his team’s initial 45 minutes.
“For me, ultimately, I’m always going to say, if that performance in the first half wasn’t the ideal performance, it goes on me, first, as the leader of the group,” he conceded. “We have spoken with the players, and I have no doubt the guys are going to get stronger and better going forward.”
That confidence was shared by Savarese’s first-choice defenders, though Mabiala, in particular, provided more detail. During a first half at Avaya Stadium that portrayed a team without solutions, Mabiala saw players acting outside of the team concept, taking it upon themselves to try find their own paths. That, ultimately, created more problems.
“When things are not going our way, especially when we are conceding the first goal, we see that we have different opinions,” Mabiala said. “Everybody is trying to do different things instead of just staying united, and trying to find the solution as a group, not individually.
“When you do that, I think you are going in the wrong way. You expose yourself and the whole team and all the weaknesses that we all have. I think we have to be united at all times, no matter what’s happening on the field.”
That lack of cohesion speaks to a lack of confidence, back it also feeds into the Timbers’ tightrope. On the field, the belief in what the team can do has to be restored, and restored in a way that transcends the faith players have in each others’ intentions, preparation and previous accomplishments. All those things go into the basic respect teammates need to have for each other.
But when it comes to walking that tightrope between past and future – to navigating a troubling present no Timbers could have foresaw – restoring confidence isn’t so easy. It requires some difficult decisions between what you assumed would work and the changes which, in light of new information, have to happen on the field.
“We are not going to lose our identity,” Savarese said, Wednesday. “Our identity is very clear in what we are. We might change the system, how we’ve done before. I’m not saying in particular, for this weekend. I’m saying in general. I’m saying we are analyzing exactly what the best for would be to keep them going forward …
“During this time is when you do the most thinking, and you see the true character of your team and your players.”
That’s where the belief – the belief Savarese reaffirms each Wednesday, when asked about potential solutions – truly comes into play. Coming into the season, there was every reason to believe the Timbers could build on how they finished 2018; or, at least, use that as a starting point to a new campaign. Obviously, that belief didn’t translate into results.
Now, and with the team's next match against FC Dallas approaching on Saturday (5pm PT, FOX 12 Plus), the belief takes a different form. Does the squad have the ability to come up with new solutions? Can they adopt a different way of winning? Can they recapture the unity that served them so well over 2018’s final months?
That, as he and his staff search for solutions, is where Savarese maintains his faith.
“As I said before, of course, if I was a fan, I wouldn’t be happy,” he conceded. “As the person in charge, I wouldn’t be happy. But I believe completely in this team, and I believe we’re going to come out stronger.