Giovanni Savarese, Timbers vs. Loons, 3.1.20
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Savarese aiming to build consistency in Timbers attack and defense: "It's about balance"

BEAVERTON, Ore. – When the Portland Timbers began conceding too many goals during the team’s preseason, head coach Giovanni Savarese said his team’s emergency defending needed to improve. But as that facet of Portland’s game continues to falter, another reality has emerged: The tests the Timbers have given that defending have proven too harsh.

“As much as we did create opportunities, we moved the ball well,” Savarese began on Wednesday, when discussing his team’s 3-1 Sunday loss to visiting Minnesota United FC, “we were not disciplined enough to be able to close spaces, to prevent some situations from happening. And then, once you play the game in a counterattack mode,” allowing teams to create opportunities in transition, “ it becomes more difficult.”

For those who haven’t seen it, that’s exactly what happened in the team’s season opener. Despite controlling play through the first 50 minutes, Portland gave up a goal in the 51st after pushing too many players forward in attack. The Loons won the ball, quickly played forward, and beat their host’s emergency defending.

Different variations on those themes were repeated in the 76th and 78th minutes, when Minnesota scored their game-winning and insurance goals, leaving Savarese focused on one aspect of the team’s approach: discipline.

“We saw two [Timbers] teams,” he said, “one in the first half which was very disciplined. We didn’t allow Minnesota to do anything. They had one chance, on a corner. But we didn’t let them penetrate or be dangerous, because we were disciplined … The second half, it was a different team.”

Savarese had the same emphasis in the minutes after the game, rhetorically asking the press if they “[saw] it in the first half,” when asked about his team’s ability to defend in transition. Over the course of the first 45 minutes, Minnesota only generated two shots, and while one was from the edge of Portland’s six-yard box, neither tested goalkeeper Steve Clark.

“Any counters?” Savarese also asked. The answer was a silent no.

“Exactly,” he said. “So what do you fix? Stay disciplined … if we stay disciplined, and if we do the things that we have to do, then you don’t see [Minnesota’s second half chances].”

But, of course, we did. On Sunday night, Savarese’s comments were general, speaking to the lack of balance between attack and defense. With two days to break down the loss, the head coach was more specific.

“It is clear to me,” he said, when asked about his team’s problems. “It’s not that we have to figure things out. It is clear to me what worked, what didn’t work, and why it didn’t work.

“It’s nothing [more than], first, stay disciplined to what we ask, which we showed in the first half. If we didn’t [stay disciplined] in the first half, it’s a different situation. Because we’re capable of doing it. It was just undisciplined on our part in the second half to break apart.

“It goes from fullbacks being too high, space in the middle being too high, pressuring high at the wrong moments, not dealing well with preventing [passes], because they played very direct. These are all things that we should have handled better, that are a reality of why we struggled in the second half, and they’re evident and clear that we need to work on that.”

If my team can play that way for one half, Savarese asks implicitly, what’s keeping it from playing that way for two?

“If we can achieve what we achieved in the first half, it means that we are capable of playing that way through the entire match and being dominant, as we were,” he said.

Until the Timbers show they can be disciplined for 90 minutes, the best response to that may be “perhaps.” In theory, sure, if a team can do something for 45 minutes, they might be able to do it for 46, 47, and eventually, 90. It’s not worst theory in the world. But one counter-theory is that there may be something about this team, be it in personnel, style, tactics or execution, that’s preventing that 45 from becoming 90. That possibility should be considered, too.

In the face of that retort, though, is the reality of a new season, as well as the evidence from 2019. Last year, the Timbers finished 10th in Major League Soccer in fewest goals allowed, doing so despite giving up 17 of their season’s 49 goals in their first six games. Over the last 28 matches of the season, the team gave up 1.14 goals per 90 minutes, a rate that would have made theirs the second-stingiest defense in MLS over the course of 2019’s season.

Now in 2020, the team is averaging 3.00 goals allowed per 90 minutes. But it’s only been one game. And in the first game of 2019, the Timbers also gave up three goals. It’s possible Portland has an inherently flawed scheme or roster, but after one game, and in the face of last year’s results, it’s too early to know.

Still, when a pattern starts to set in, you have to take note. Savarese did so last season, tinkering with his team’s approach and changing personnel until the goal prevention improved. This year, his first solution is to appeal to his players, calling on them to show better judgment.

“I think it’s emotions coming into the play,” he said. “We wanted to get there. Because we did a lot of good in the first half, and I think the guys felt that if we push a little more, we’ll get what we deserve. But you have to be careful. Because once you break a little bit of discipline and you unbalance yourself, you have to know your capabilities. That goes to our strengths and weaknesses. Now, we put ourselves in a situation where we show our strengths and weaknesses …

“It was the first match. If we are able to play the way that we played in the first half, it’s going to be difficult for any team that is going to play against us. If we play like we did in the second half, then people are going to say, ‘OK, this is the way to play against Portland.’ … It’s about balance.”

At one point on Wednesday, Savarese broke his thought process down to its core issue, one which, perhaps ironically, is also about balance. In any sport, seeking more in attack comes with greater risks. In baseball, that may be starting players with better bats than gloves. In basketball, shooters who can’t defend may be chosen, while a football team may sacrifice the protection of a tight end or running back to get another player into the passing pattern.

In soccer, “once a team just becomes too unbalanced going forward, you leave things to a risk,” Savarese explained. “And then you have to figure out: Is that our strength, to be in that position, or is it a weakness? And then, you have to make some decisions. How to push a little bit more or how to prevent a little bit more. It’s simple.”

Simple, but as of now, unclear in terms of Portland’s solutions. On Sunday against Nashville SC (4pm PT, ESPN), Savarese will either find those solutions, or 2020’s one-game sample will, over the course of two hours, double.