PORTLAND, Ore. – Over the final 66 minutes of the game, the Portland Timbers failed to register a shot. The team didn’t win a corner kick over the full 90. They gave up nine to Nashville SC. Come Sunday’s final whistle, Portland’s guests had outshot them, 14-3.
Much of that was the function of Sunday’s game state, one that swung in the Timbers’ favor in the 12th minute. After Diego Valeri’s second goal of the season – gifted in large part by Nashville’s right back, Eric Miller, keeping the Timbers captain onside – Portland was able to sit on their lead, limiting Nashville to four shots on target while closing out a 1-0 victory at Providence Park.
“Sometimes, these types of games are not pretty …,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese admitted after the game, having already declared the obvious.
“The most important thing was for us to make sure that we got a win, to get three points,” he said, his team having lost to Minnesota United 3-1 a week ago. “The guys battled to make sure we achieved that.”
The victory came with reservations, and not only because of the Timbers’ lack of shots. The team’s inability to retain the ball over the match’s final hour, as well as the defense occasionally sitting up too deep, were brought up by players postgame, casting Sunday’s result as less of a triumph than a modest step forward.
“We want to be a team that can carry the ball a little bit better than what we did today,” defender Larrys Mabiala said. “We are a little bit disappointed about that, but the most important [thing] today was to take the three points. We couldn’t let six points in two weeks just go like that.”
“It definitely wasn’t perfect,” right back Chris Duvall said of the defense’s performance. “We still have a long way to go. We gave up some pretty good chances. Especially late, we sat very deep and allowed them that little bit of the ball. But just to come home with a clean sheet is very important. It’s a stepping stone to what happens next.”
In time, we’ll remember Sunday’s game as much for what the Timbers need to improve as the result itself. But seven days after season-opening disappointment, it’s difficult to begrudge players and fans the satisfaction of a positive result.
Here’s What We’ll Remember from the second game of the 2020 season:
The message of the lineup
In the wake of last week’s loss, you could have forgiven Savarese for making big changes, if for no other reason than to hold his team accountable for their season’s first performance. But there are other ways to get your point across, so in lieu of turning over his team, Savarese and his staff elected to make two small moves.
One was forced on them, with Duvall making his Timbers debut after Saturday’s news that Jorge Moreira may have surgery on Monday. The other move proved a stylistic choice, with Savarese explaining Andy Polo’s start was intended to give his attack more options.
“In the middle,” Savarese began, describing his choice of Polo over last week’s central midfielder starter, Cristhian Paredes, “we just felt that we needed to [choose] a player that can join the attack, that had a little bit more mobility to be able to find spaces.”
The lineup’s performance came through on the scoresheet, as well as in the other numbers that describe the performance. The lineup’s message, though, was one of moderation. The team needed some change, and as would have happened at some point in the season, new options were explored. But there would no massive shakeup; at least, not after week one.
Valeri nearing a hot start
Credit the man for being honest. When asked after the game about his season’s second goal, Valeri admitted some trepidation. The five-yard gap between Miller and his teammates had kept Valeri onside, but with his back to the Minnesota defender, the long-time Timber couldn’t know if his goal would count.
“I didn’t want to celebrate, just in case,” he admitted. “But when I saw [Miller] after, I realized I could be on, I was so happy about it. You always want the ball in the net.”
Last week’s goal came from the penalty spot after Felipe Mora drew a whistle. This week, it was a Polo header that kept an attempted clearance in the attacking zone, allowing Valeri to beat Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis far post. Regardless, the Portland captain is again proving his value. Over two weeks, when his teammates have provided the chances, the Timbers legend has provided the goals.
Bend (bend, and then bend some more) but don’t break at the back
This can not happen every week. Nashville is in its MLS infancy and is still collecting talent. The team didn’t have the firepower to punish Portland, but over the course of 2020, others will. Absorbing that much pressure and letting yourself get outshot 14-3 can work occasionally, if rarely. It’s not a long-term solution.
It was, however, a solution for the now, a present in which the team needed to curtail last week’s momentum and stave off another slow start.
“We’ve been working a lot on trying to be compact and make things more difficult for the opponent,” Mabiala explained. “Today, we’ve been very, very conservative.”
It’s part of a pattern that we saw the last two years. This year’s version may be in a more truncated form. Then, the Timbers would get off to a slow start, strip things down in defense, before building their approach back up from its studs. In 2018 and 2019, those processes played out over more than a month. This year, that timeframe may be down to two weeks.
In seven days, we’ll know more. That’s when the Timbers will venture away from Portland for the first time this season, going to Massachusetts to face a New England Revolution team that handed them a 3-1 loss to close the preseason (10:30am PT, ROOT SPORTS). If the Timbers truly have made progress, we should see it in next week’s outcome. If they haven’t, there’ll be new context to tonight’s underlying numbers.