PORTLAND, Ore. – When the head coach admits there’s a problem, it’s time to start taking that problem seriously. Even in preseason. Even eight months ahead of your regular season’s final moments.
That was the big takeaway from Saturday night, after the Portland Timbers closed their Major League Soccer preseason, presented by Old Trapper Beef Jerky, with an eye-opening loss to the New England Revolution. Despite controlling the first 30 minutes of play and approaching halftime with a 1-0 lead, the home team conceded the match’s final three goals, losing 3-1 in a game which, after allowing four goals to the Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Wednesday night, sounded alarms about the state of the team’s defending.
“We’ve been exposed [during] these last two games in ways we’re not happy with,” Portland’s head coach, Giovanni Savarese, said after the match. For preseason, the assessment was uncharacteristically blunt.
Blunt, but not wrong. Seven goals allowed over two games is indisputable, and while Wednesday’s concessions against the Whitecaps came with Savarese’s second team on the field, the worrisome patterns continued. Breakdowns are undermining broader play. The team is leaving itself exposed.
Those patterns also provided more evidence – evidence which helps address some lingering questions. Should Timbers fans be worried, considering this is only preseason? After all, these games don’t count. And what about the personnel differences? With Portland alternating lineups throughout their preseason-ending tournament, can any lessons truly be drawn? And ultimately, what can two bad games, especially in a preseason, tell us about a squad?
Reframe those questions as debates, and there are arguments on both sides. In all sports, preseason results are read like tea leaves, or tarot cards, neither of which can be taken too seriously. Ten seasons into the Timbers’ MLS journey, we’ve been tricked by preseasons before.
Yet Savarese made it clear which side of those debates he’s on. Saturday mattered, and in the face of an emerging pattern, Wednesday mattered, too.
“It’s my responsibility to fix [the defense’s problems],” he admitted, “to make sure that we’re better, to make sure that we’re better prepared for next week. We need to start the new season with the right foot forward … it falls into my responsibility to make sure that we’re stronger and better.”
Savarese’s words weren’t all negative. He started Saturday night’s press conference on a positive note, offering, “Our preseason’s been very good,” and adding Portland’s attack showed it’s “capable of playing through teams with no problem.” His team was “dominant in many, many moments” and, over an initial period in which the team generated four chances, the Timbers “could have been [ahead by] more than one goal …”
“Then,” Savarese continued, “in a moment that we feel that we’re doing very well, we allowed them to score a goal towards the end of the first half and then everything changes. Similar to what happened in the last match against Minnesota with different players, but it’s definitely something that we need to make sure that we improve because if we improve that, everything else has been very, very good.”
Saturday’s moment seemed to come with celebrations, with the Timbers letting up immediately after Diego Chara’s 29th minute goal. It’s a common occurrence for professional soccer teams, who often need time to regain their focus.
During that time, though, onlookers at Providence Park saw new elements of the Revolution emerge. For the first time that night, New England was able to find their striker, Adam Buksa, at the top of their attack. Gustavo Bou, the player head coach Bruce Arena’s formation was built around, started finding new spaces on the field. Eventually, those two would combine for their team’s three goals, with a series of different, albeit equally troublesome Timbers mistakes leading toward those scores.
“We wanted to finish the preseason in a better way,” Chara concedes, “but we had important moments throughout today’s match. We made some defensive mistakes, and New England capitalized on them.”
Bou’s 42nd-minute opener came as the visitors had time and space to play through, over, and back across the the Timbers’ defense, producing the type of far post-goal that has become a late staple of the Portland preseason. The second score came after a bad giveaway in the Timbers’ half, leaving defender Larrys Mabiala to concede a penalty after a teammate kept the Buksa onside. The third goal saw an unfortunate bounce turn a Timbers tackle into a crossing opportunity for Bou, but had New England not been allowed to get the ball into a dangerous part of the field, Buksa would not have put home the night’s final goal.
The patterns to note: the breakdowns, leaving the team wondering why 80, 85 minutes of good defending can be undermined by a few moments; the far-post defending, which has emerged as a consistent issue in the face of opposition crosses; and the emergency defending, leaving the Timbers unable to find the right solutions when aberrations emerge.
All of which came in the face of another problem: the lack of focus after the 29th-minute goal. Had the Timbers maintained the mentality they showed over the night’s first half-hour, Bou and Buksa may never get into the game. Perhaps Portland’s pressure never allows New England to find new spaces on the field. And, perhaps, the weaknesses we’re now seeing in the Timbers defense get protected instead of exposed.
“Sometimes it feels easy for us to be able to create chances, to have the ball, to move it around,” Savarese explained, about his team’s change in mentality. “We feel dominant, and we need to make sure that we don’t feel that comfortable [and] allow teams to be able to find their way back into the game, to be able to find areas in which then they become dangerous.
“After they started to become dangerous, they found an opportunity to score a goal and then comes the emotional situation of now we’re 1-1 when we should probably be 2 or 3-0 at that point.”
It feels like a very Timbers problem; at least, this version of the Timbers. And in that way, we’re seeing an early 2020 theme emerge.
There is no question about what Portland can be when they’re clicking. It’s the type of team which, last year, can go into places like Los Angeles, Seattle and Toronto and emerge with results. But within the course of a single game, do we see that version for more than 30 minutes? Or, does the theme that defined that end of last season, that of a team waiting too long to show its best self, also become a defining part of a new season?
Come Sunday against Minnesota (4:30pm PT, FS1, TICKETS), Portland starts answering that question, hoping this year’s response is different than last fall’s.