BEAVERTON, Ore. – Through the first month of the season, the mood around the Timbers Training Center was remarkably consistent. Amid the team’s slow start, one that left Portland 0-3-1 going into last weekend’s game, the general feeling was calm concern. Yes, the season hadn’t started as planned, but fresh off a conference title, the team knew what they were.
This week, it’s been different. After Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, the Timbers are still calm. But there’s an intensity beneath that exterior that’s changed. It’s more than just concern. It’s alarm, mixed with a bit of confusion, heightened by the urgency of expectations and a winless month. While players are still positive and the work, in training, is still intense, there’s a quiet acceptance of where the team has fallen.
“We want to do some things better, and that is a little uncomfortable, from our part, because we know that we can give more,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, on Wednesday. “We know that we can be better.
“All of us are working harder to make sure that we can come out of this, because I think it starts from knowing we are in a difficult moment.”
It starts, in other words, by being real. Over the first four games of the season, the Timbers could hold positives close and remember what they were – a team that thrived last autumn. But when you visit what was recognized as MLS’s worst team and leave having claimed that title, all positives lie in the future. The present becomes about accepting reality. And reality, right now, is “uncomfortable.”
For Portland, Saturday’s match at FC Dallas is less of a match between two soccer teams. It’s a conflict between what the Timbers are and what they want the season to be. Right now, the campaign’s being defined by disappointment and confusion, and as of last week, those themes are impacting the group’s work on the field.
This week, that group needs to reclaim their season. They need to write their own story, before 2019’s story is written for them.
Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report – three areas of focus ahead of Saturday’s visit to Frisco, Texas:
When are results the only standard?
Realistically, if the Timbers go to Dallas, play well, but lose a close game, that will be progress. But it will be progress in the same way the 2-1 loss at the LA Galaxy was progress two weeks ago. At some point, and that point may be now, you have to start getting results, not only because sports seasons are about results, but because everything that’s not a result is merely a part of a pattern – a pattern that’s led to now.
It’s still a 34-game season. The Timbers still have a huge run of games at home which, at the back end of the calendar, will finally, thankfully, balance out this campaign. But that is so far into the future, it offers an easy choice: Would you rather acquiesce to this world for seven weeks, thinking everything before June 1 is out of your control; or, do you want to do something about it, knowing that when the home opener finally comes, you’ll be able to say you tried everything, at all times, no matter the results?
No matter the results, though, is not even necessary. Is there truly a realistic version of this Timbers team which, if they keep trying and searching for solutions over the next seven games, doesn’t break through? I don’t mean break through as in returning home with a seven-game winning streak and everything is amazing. I just mean winning some games, competing in all of them. Yes, you’re going to come home having to dig out of a hole, but you’ll also be back with the confidence that you survived the season’s first obstacle. And not merely survived by letting the calendar turn.
That’s the motivation. The reality: It has to start now. Improvement, progress, and ultimately, results. There’s still a scenario where, in the most relative sense, the team can move forward on Saturday but lose. But at that point, six games into the season, it may not feel like much of a step forward.
The defense has to improve
Central defender Larrys Mabiala described it perfectly on Wednesday, when asked if any of his former teams had experienced moments like this one.
“In terms of results, yes …,” he explained, “but not in the amount of the goals conceded …”
Five goals scored in five games isn’t great, but really, teams have road stretches like that all the time. Western Conference teams averaged 1.33 goals per game on the road last season. The Timbers are at 1.00, now. It’s below the mark, but it’s not in a different world, given such a small swathe of the season.
Compare that to the team’s goals allowed. Last year, West teams conceded 1.93 times per game on the road. As most Timbers fans know, by now, this year’s team is allowing 3.00 goals per match. That is different worlds.
How do you fix that, though? Personnel? That’s a good idea, and fans have certainly called for that, particularly in central defense. But the team has already used four different central defenders. There have been three different fullbacks, and five different players in central midfield. Three different wingers have made starts.
Do you change the system, in terms of formation? The one time the Timbers did that, this season, it worked. Kind of. The team lost that game at the Galaxy playing a 5-3-2 formation (as opposed to their normal 4-2-3-1), but they “only” conceded two times – and never from open play. They didn’t even allow an open-play shot on target. Two goals are still more than most concede on the road, but it’s also the only time this season Portland’s allowed fewer than three goals.
In time, even that performance has to look like a below-average one, and in all likelihood, that means finding the right combination of personnel and approach. For the central defenders, that means no longer exposing them to unreasonable situations, so you can start to make a fair evaluation. For fullbacks, that means getting more support from wingers, and for central midfielders, that means better decisions and execution, so the players behind you have the best chance to excel – something that may require keeping a third player in the middle.
The goals are coming too often, and far too easily. There are a lot of priorities, right now, but in terms of potential impact, being better at preventing goals has to be job number one.
Every option has to be on the table
We just mentioned one potential change. Going back to the one formation that’s worked, this year, has to be considered. But that’s not the only change that has to be in play, right now. When you’re 0-4-1 and being outscored by two goals per game, every player on the roster has to be an option.
So, which new faces could we see? Tomás Conechny has seen 62 minutes across three games this year. Is it time for his season’s first start? What about players like Modou Jadama, Eryk Williamson and Renzo Zambrano, who have been thriving in USL? They’re on first-team contracts. Aren’t they options, too?
And what of Foster Langsdorf, who saw his first 24 minutes of MLS action last week in San Jose. He didn’t get much of a chance to shine, but nothing about the work that earned those minutes changed, either. Will the Homegrown Player make his second MLS 18? Marco Farfan needs to be in this conversation, too.
There is no lack of options, and at times like these, all of them should be considered. If his toe was better, Marvin Loría would be in the mix, too. They’re all virtues of making a greater commitment to the team’s USL squad. While Savarese needs to balance those options against respect for what the regular first teamers can still bring to the field, at this point, with so many players in the first team struggling, those USL options have an entirely different feel.