PORTLAND, Ore. – Two themes emerged from Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese after his team’s Wednesday defeat, a 2-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls that dropped Portland to 2-4-0 in their last six games.
The first was belief. Shutout in their last two games, having lost at home to teams in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race (New York and, on Sunday, previously, D.C. United), it would be natural for the Timbers to experience a moment doubt. For Savarese, though, it was important to move on from that moment as soon as possible.
“We just spoke, and we can not dwell on the fact that we lost today,” the head coach said in the minutes after Wednesday’s disappointment. “We need to continue to fight. We just need to be a better team that knows how to win, even in moments that are difficult.”
The second theme centered on luck, though not in the way it’s usually evoked in the wake of failure. Savarese did lament Diego Chara hitting the crossbar in the first half against New York, just as he lamented Diego Valeri finding the woodwork twice on Sunday against United. But instead of bemoaning a cosmic conspiracy against his team, Savarese evoked his team’s agency, implying Portland has to assert control over their most unfortunate moments.
“Against Minnesota, we expect another difficult game,” he said, alluding to Sunday’s kickoff at Providence Park (1:03pm PT, TICKETS, ESPN), “a game that is going to be very tactical … so, we (have to) expect that, prepare for what is coming, and try to make sure that we change our luck.”
There’s no more waiting for luck to change on its own. With four games left in their season, the Timbers have to own their outcomes. Over the last week, those outcomes have left them shut out, without a point, and in eighth place in the Western Conference. Now, it’s time to turn their season around.
Here’s a look at Sunday’s visit from Minnesota United FC - this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report:
Breakthrough season - Minnesota United’s form
Record: 14-10-6 (48 points, third in MLS’ Western Conference)
Goals for: 49 (ninth in MLS)
Goals against: 40 (sixth-fewest)
Goal difference: +9 (fifth)
What odds would you have gotten before the season on Minnesota United finishing second in the Western Conference? Twenty-five to one? Longer? I’m not a betting guy, let alone a hypothetical betting guy, but thinking back to February, it felt like almost nobody was picking the Loons for the West’s top seven, let alone the top two. Yet here we are, four games from Minnesota’s first postseason, and they’re two points back of the second spot.
Adrian Heath is probably not going to win Coach of the Year – Los Angeles FC’s Bob Bradley is the frontrunner, there – but he deserves a moment’s praise, particularly after years of being unfairly pilloried by some segments of the MLS fanbase. Over the last two seasons, it had become commonplace for fans to wonder aloud whether Heath would have his job were it not for his English accent (reminder: this is sports, where people say terrible things all the time). Nevermind his Orlando teams were in a constant state of flux. Nevermind his Minnesota teams also needed their expansion runway. The same adjustments coaches like James O’Connor (Orlando) and Marc Dos Santos (Vancouver) are enduring, now – the adjustments from lower-division management to MLS – Heath had to navigate, too. Now, we’ve seen what he can do with a more capable squad.
It’s never great to take the extremes of fandom and hold them up as examples – I’m guilty of doing that, here – but it is worth a reminder that circumstances beyond his control kept Heath from enjoying the success he’s having now. With time and some organizational patience, he’s forged a formidable team in Minnesota.
Recent history: Back-to-back heartbreak in St. Paul
Last game: Minnesota 2-1 win (August 7, U.S. Open Cup semifinals)
All-time: Minnesota is 4-2-0 versus Portland
Amid the doubts surrounding Portland's recent performances, it’s become difficult to remember early August, when the team seemed primed to not only race up the Western Conference standings but, if a week in Minnesota went well, secure their first place in an Open Cup final. Confidence was high, back then. Faith in Minnesota was still low.
Over the course of four days, the Loons changed the story. It started with 1-0 win on that Sunday, with Ethan Finlay converting from the spot after a late handball. Then, a 2-1 victory in Open Cup that sent Minnesota into its first final. The Loons ended up losing at Atlanta United FC three weeks later, but with their back-to-back wins over Portland, Minnesota provided proof of their postseason credentials.
Since, results have been mixed, with Minnesota going 3-4-1 over their last eight competitive matches. Two wins in that time, though, have been of note. Three weeks ago, Heath’s team went into Banc of California Stadium and knocked off LAFC, 2-0. Then, last week, the Loons took an important 3-1 victory over Real Salt Lake – a team that came into that game above them in the Western Conference.
Focus player: Mason Toye
Season: 13 games (six starts), 605 minutes, six goals
All-time: Six goals in 30 appearances
Some context on the 20-year-old’s second-season breakthrough: Brian Fernandez is averaging a goal every 119.5 minutes since moving to MLS. Toye’s scoring every 100.8 this season.
That number will come back to earth, especially with the Indiana University product’s surge earning him more playing time, exposing him to more than late-match scenarios. But Toye is more than just a goalscorer. With four assists in 945 career minutes, the U.S. U-23 international has also proved a good creator, with his world-class speed capable of snapping any defense.
Portland found that out the hard way last month. Having fought back to take a 1-1 scoreline into halftime of their Open Cup semifinal, the Timbers saw one long ball out of his own end from Kevin Molino put Toye into space behind their defense. Moments later, Minnesota had recaptured their lead, giving them all they needed to advance to the tournament’s final round.
Focus matchup: Diego Chara versus Darwin Quintero
Portland fans got MLS’ first impressions of Darwin Quintero last season, when the Colombian attacker debuted for Minnesota at Providence Park. Though the Timbers went on to win that game, the former Club América player put Portland in danger of dropping points in their home debut.
Since, Quintero’s spread that damage across the league. On the brink of his 50th MLS start (with 53 appearances, thus far), the 32-year-old has 21 goals and 20 assists in his new league, and while he may not reach a second consecutive 10/10 season – having posted 11 goals and 15 assists last year – his production has consistently stayed on that level.
The good news for Portland: most of Quintero’s impact comes from the same area occupied by the Timbers’ best player, Chara. For example, here is map of all of Quintero’s passes, dribbles and shots last week against Real Salt Lake, when he scored twice during Minnesota’s victory:
As much as any player in the league, Chara is capable of shutting this down. While that could limit the Timber’s role or end up pushing Quintero into other spaces, the Colombian-on-Colombian battle could still define Sunday’s outcome.
As for the Timbers …
As with the Thorns on Saturday, rebound is the focus. The club’s women’s team needs to bounce back from a bad game. The club’s men’s team needs to bounce back from a bad month.
With two wins in their last six games, the Timbers find themselves on the outside looking in on the playoffs, and while they have a game-in-hand on the field, that edge means nothing if the team isn’t playing well. And coming off successive, shutout losses at home, the team is decidedly not playing well.
Thanks to last year’s playoff run-in, their playoff triumphs at Seattle and Kansas City, and big road wins throughout this season, Portland has developed a win-anywhere-at-anytime mentality, something that fits well with MLS’ playoff format. Once they get there, they’re as capable as any team of winning it all, they believe – and not without reason. As of right now, though, getting there to the postseason is in doubt. The same flip-the-switch mentality that left the team home for the postseason in 2016 may be resurfacing, now.
This year's team is completely different. Entirely new coaching staff. Only four players still part of the squad. But overconfidence isn’t merely a Portland Timbers issue. The history of sports is littered with teams which failed to reach their potential.
The Timbers know they can compete with anybody in Major League Soccer. Based on the games that have mattered most to them, they’re right to believe in themselves. But that belief can’t just be saved for the postseason. On Sunday, Portland has to show its true self.