BEAVERTON, Ore. – Portland Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala rarely ventures into the controversial, but he’s always blunt, even when blunt doesn’t make news. Often, this leaves him evoking perspective, confessing when performances are bad but also noting that they’re only one performance.
That’s part of the reason why the veteran’s Wednesday comments feel so spot on. With two days’ distance from the team’s disappointing 3-1 loss to Minnesota United FC in its home opener, Mabiala was honest about the patterns he saw resurface, admitting “Honestly, I wasn’t expecting this to happen” when asked parallels to Portland’s 2018 and 2019 starts.
“I feel like this team has to learn the hard way, always, ever again to understand that we have to all stay together and just apply the plan, all together,” he said. “Stay connected for the full 90 minutes.”
In 2018, the Timbers went winless over their first five games, with a 4-0 loss at the New York Red Bulls in the season’s second week proving the signature moment of that year’s poor start. One year later, the team was winless in their first six, with 3-0 defeats at FC Cincinnati (game three) and the San Jose Earthquakes (game five) serving as wake up calls.
“It’s good that it happens now,” Mabiala said, “because that’s what happened in the last two seasons. It was early in the season and we could finish the way we finished. It’s always good this happens at this time so you can make things right and turn things over.”
Sure, better early than late, but what about the fact that this happens at all? Is there some reason why, each year under head coach Giovanni Savarese, the team has struggled in March?
Asked about potential parallels between the seasons – or, specifically, “are you concerned that the patterns of the last two Marches are resurfacing now” – Savarese implied each season has had its own problems. When explaining comparing 2020 to 2019, he said, “It’s different.”
“Last year, we had issues that made me understand why, sometimes, mentally and emotionally, we could break down,” he explained. “There were issues that we were managing that I feel didn’t allow us to always be calm and be able to execute the way that we wanted to.
“This year, things are very good. This year our locker room is phenomenal. We have a good group. No issues. We have a great team that can do very well. It’s not the same thing as last year.”
Implicitly, we have three different reasons – three explanations for why each March has been a challenge. In 2018, Savarese and his staff were new, the roster experienced huge changes, and the team was managing its first preseason of Providence Park’s expansion, forcing them to do two, two-week stints in Tucson, Arizona. Come game one of the regular season, issues were exposed.
In 2019, according to Savarese, the team’s mentality wasn’t ready to meet new challenges. Just like the year before, the team had to be humbled, broken down and rebuilt to a playoff level. Over the season’s first month, issues were exposed, but ultimately, Portland returned to the postseason.
All of which suggests a slow start is no reason to panic. Still, no team starts preseason camp in January with the goal of losing games in March. These are still losses, still slow starts, still performances that staffs can’t allow to become definitional. Plus, if the Timbers don’t want to keep giving away points each March, they’ll eventually have to answer the question: Why does this keep happening?
For Mabiala, it’s about the mentality of the team, one that seems to need adversity before it’s willing to respond. There’s a tinge of frustration in his voice; exasperation at his sense of deja vu. With his tone, “I wasn’t expecting this to happen” feels like a euphemism, of sorts. The subtext: You’ve got to be kidding me, something that makes bouncing back this Sunday against Nashville SC (4pm PT, ESPN, TICKETS) “very important.”
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“We just want to show that we can do what we did in the first half for 90 minutes,” Mabiala said. “Of course, you won’t have the ball every time for the full 90 minutes. But even when we don’t have the ball, we were still connected [in the first half]. They couldn’t find any opportunities. They didn’t have any chances. We just want to show that we can have this kind of performance in a 90-minute game.”
The key to that, for Savarese, is discipline.
“[The solution] is just making sure that the group is disciplined enough to understand that [the players[ have to play the way they’re asked to play,” he said, “because if we let emotions, excitement that we were great, we were dominant, we’re moving the ball well and creating chances, now we can push a little bit more ... then we could see some of the moments that we saw last year, in the type of counters that can hurt us. Then, when you defend in emergencies, things are going to happen.”
At a minimum, we have theories to test. From Mabiala, solutions revolve around staying connected as a team, and making sure that connection lasts the entire 90 minutes. From Savarese, it’s something related. If the team can stay disciplined from whistle to whistle and play within the game plan, the concessions should stop, and the results should come.
So, if the connection and discipline arrive but the results don’t, we know there are other problems. We know today’s theories are wrong, and the team needs better solutions. Likewise, if those things never arrive – if we don’t see progress toward the Timbers’ 90-minute goal – we know a new plan has to be put in place, or other players need to be asked to execute the current one.
There’s another possibility, too: That the Timbers are connected, are disciplined on Sunday, and they win. Perhaps 2020’s slow start will never arrive, and all this worry will be for naught.
Still, we’ve been here before. We were here last year. We were here two years ago.