PORTLAND, Ore. – In the soccer world, we’re used to the way losing teams talk about their losses, often doing so in a way that tries to mitigate their impacts. Some point to bad luck. Others point to poor officiating decisions. Still others point to numbers, like shots on goal or possession totals, to imply that their team wasn’t as bad as the final score.
“I thought in the first half we created a lot of chances and we had opportunities ...,” Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said after his team’s game against Atlanta United on August 25. The Timbers lost that game at Providence Park, 2-0, but they way Savarese described his team’s performance wasn’t so different than how a number of losing coaches describe their teams’ performances. As much as coaches have to search out their teams’ problems, the strengths need to be noted, as well.
“We were playing very well,” he continued. “The only thing is that we needed to be a little bit calmer ... It was an even game, and it was just the moments that they took advantage of that made the difference in the match.”
Some coaches’ arguments are more convincing than others, but the broader points are ones on which most of us can agree. There’s a story the final score tells, and then there’s something deeper. Sometimes, those things are in agreement; others times, the picture is not so clear.
Where those pictures really matter is where teams have to come up with solutions. What happened in the past can neither be changed nor bring back lost points. The lessons you draw from them, however, can dramatically alter your future. Either you make the correct calls and right your wrongs, or in seeking new solutions, you only make your problems worse.
Coming off consecutive home losses, the Timbers are at a particularly interesting point of that process. That 2-0 loss to Atlanta, followed five days later by a 2-1 defeat to Seattle. One reading would see key losses to potential MLS Cup rivals as a sign: that the team has fallen out of step with its competition. In that world, major changes would be made. Another reading, though, would look at the commonalities between the two games and ask “how easy is it to fix those problems?” If the problems are straight forward, the Timbers might not be so far off; else, major changes here, too.
From the perspective of a fan, there is no wrong answer, here. If you want to tear it all down, you can point to some undeniable facts: that the team has lost two straight home games; and they’ve stalled in their quest to climb the conference. Those bottom lines alone are enough to build your rhetorical bonfire.
From the perspective of a coach, though, you have to look at goals like this, the first allowed against Atlanta United, and ask two questions (well, more than two questions, but let’s not list all of them, here):
First, how likely is this scenario to happen again? Or, another way to put that: Is there something happening systemically that makes this goal more likely to happen than, say, it would happen with another team?
Sometimes that systemic problem comes down to a team’s style. Other times, it’s the team’s tactics. Other times still, it’s a player’s performance that’s part of that system failure. When assessing these types of goals, you have to consider all those possibilities. If any of those problems are likely to recur, you have to adjust.
Let’s put aside the answer to that question, for now, and get to the second factor a coaching staff has to consider, when looking at this goal. This goal changed the match, allowing one of the league’s best teams in possession to play even more to their strengths and, on short rest after a mid-week game, manage the match in a way they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. So, if that goal doesn’t happen – if you feel like, a huge portion of the time, the defense will find a way to clear that ball – what chances would Portland have had to earn a better result?
That’s where those shot totals come into play. It’s where you get people talking about possession, or the quality of a team’s chances created. That was part of the rhetoric after the Atlanta United game – that the team created good chances, throughout – but no matter where it’s from, that rhetoric carries an implication: If that uncharacteristic breakdown (if you see it as uncharacteristic) didn’t happen – is this game played out as most other games would – does your team deliver a better result?
Keep that in mind as we move forward: to Friday’s game against the Seattle Sounders; to yet another game where an early goal was so important:
Now, let’s go through the questions, again. “Is there something happening systemically that makes this goal more likely to happen than, say, it would happen with another team?” Potentially, yes. Again, the emergency, six-yard box defending here didn’t get the job done. Chaos happened, and the Timbers didn’t respond. But there’s also a big difference with this goal. Whereas the score in the Atlanta was from a corner kick, here, a Seattle player beats his Portland counterpart to fire a ball into chaos.
We’ve seen this before from the Timbers, this year. Over the early matches of the season, the team was terrible in defending in wide areas, got picked apart, and didn’t win until their seventh game of the season. We may be in a world where weaknesses like this are constant danger of being exposed. But we’re also in a world where, for most of the season, the team was able to deal with this problem. So, when you ask yourself how much of this issue is a systemic, potentially recurring problem, the answer isn’t straight forward.
Again, we’re in a place where you can make viable arguments in either direction. If you think the team needs to be better at fullback or central defense, guess what? All you need to do is link to some of the team’s recent goals and say, “See?” Send tweet. You’re done. But also ask yourself whether, if you were a team’s head coach or general manager, you could do the same? Would you just say, “bottom line, goal,” or would feel compelled to look for the deep, underlying cause? Would you feel like you’re doing your job if you went solely by a moment without looking at the broader arc?
Getting back to our process, the second question we ask remains important: “If that uncharacteristic breakdown (if you see it as uncharacteristic) didn’t happen – is this game played out as most other games would – does your team deliver a better result?” Just as with Atlanta, Seattle presented an opponent adept at holding the ball who is also comfortable defending without it. Make a list of the teams to which you’d be least comfortable giving up an early goal, and both United and the Sounders would be near the top. That makes it more important that you don’t give up that early goal, but when you do, it also informs how you answer the question, above. Would the Timbers have been able to deliver a better result if, instead of being down 1-0 in the 23rd minute, the defense found a way to clear that ball? What, from the rest of the game, told us the Timbers would still be destined for the same result without the key breakdown?
To me, from the distance we sit from the team, the answer to that question is less important than the questions themselves. There is enough evidence supporting any conclusion. We can all have opinions about the Timbers’ defending, ability to break down deep-sitting defenses, as well as their lineup choices, and realistically, there’s going to be a way to support any conclusion. What’s important, though, when trying to understand how the team moves forward, is knowing the process each staff has to go through in trying to answer those questions.
Because as much as that second question – what would have happened, if – sounds like a hypothetical, it’s the world every coaching staff deals with once a game is done. The moment a final whistle blows, the countdown to another kickoff starts. By the time that kickoff arrives, each staff have to have a theory in place, one that tries to address its team’s problems.
Is the Timbers’ problem their two-straight losses? Yes, as it concerns the standings, but come Saturday against Real Salt Lake (7:30pm PT, TICKETS, FOX 12 Plus (KPDX)), that won’t matter, anymore. What matters, in terms of the preparation, is whether the moments that led to those losses resurface against RSL.
If the answer is yes, the Timbers have a lot of work to do. It has to address a systemic problem. If the answer is no, the team needs to be aware of their mistakes, tighten up in those areas, and get back to becoming a team that can attack the 2019 postseason.