Inside PTFC | Portland Timbers' new status will require a mental evolution

iPTFC, 7.10.18

It was there at the first half’s end against the San Jose Earthquakes, something we aren’t accustomed to seeing from the Portland Timbers this season. When it resurfaced in the final quarter-hour, the mood become undeniable. For perhaps the first time this season, the Timbers were too lax, too comfortable with a lead; maybe even overconfident. They were struggling with their own control.

“I thought for the majority of the match, we did a lot of good things …” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese offered after the match. After all, his team extended their unbeaten streak to 13 games with their 2-1 victory. “But then we didn’t capitalize on those chances, and at the end of the game, we suffered a little bit. I think toward the end of the first half and toward the end of the game, we suffered.”

The suffering came down to a change in mentality, something he addressed at halftime. His team had gone into intermission with a one-goal lead but had given the Earthquakes a number of opportunities to even the score. Things had been too easy over the first 30 minutes, and come the half’s closing moments, the Timbers were having trouble playing as frontrunners.

“What I told the players was to make sure that we raise the level,” he explained. “That we keep on moving the ball like we did for the majority of the first half. That we find a goal early (in the second half), and that’s what the guys did, right away … [The players] were able to do the things we spoke about.”

Yet come the end of a game, the Timbers were suffering, again. The Earthquakes were back on the front foot, and the clean sheet the team had hoped to carry to full time collapsed under a breakdown that gifted Florian Jungworth a goal.

As much as Saturday was defined by a 13th-straight game unbeaten, as much as it was defined by another standout performance from Samuel Armenteros, those late-match stretches almost became the game’s dominant theme. Suffering, in hindsight, may been lesson number one.

“Unfortunately, towards the end, with a 2-0 lead after a few opportunities … [the Earthquakes] were able to score, and then we suffered,” Savarese said. “We suffered toward the end, and it was a difficult three points ...”

Evolving the identity

It didn’t need to be that difficult. And in the future, it probably won’t. Right now, though, the Timbers are just starting to evolve from a certain disposition, one the team had to embrace after its 0-2-0 start. As you’ve undoubtedly read here, before, the team completely changed approach after being blitzed by the New York Red Bulls in the second game of the season, going to a 4-3-2-1 formation tried to plug every leak in the ship. If was the type of back-to-basics approach that, if it was successful, would merely provide a foundation to build from.

Slowly, the Timbers have done just that. We saw the progress as early as their trip to Orlando, the last game of the team’s five-match, season-opening road trip, when they controlled play for most of the match before a late collapse. Against Minnesota United, too (the team’s next game), they dictated play, even if they had another bout of late-gameitis. As teams like New York City FC, Los Angeles FC, Sporting Kansas City and Atlanta United have come along, the Timbers had fewer chances to maintain control, but with the team’s unbeaten streak up to 13, the team is also growing out of its read-and-react mode.

You saw it in the first 30 minutes again San Jose, when the Timbers controlled 60.6 percent of the match’s possession. And over the first half-hour of the second half, too, Portland dictated the game’s tempo, holding 56.8 percent of the ball. For a team that’s only averaged 47.1 percent possession this year (the San Jose game included), that’s a huge upturn in control, undoubtedly part of the reason why the Timbers scored both their goals and outshot their opponents 15-5 over that split hour.

Aside from the Orlando game, those were the Timbers’ most dominant stretches of the season. But, unfortunately, the team didn’t sustain it. Over the last 15 minutes of each half, Portland was outshot nine to four (combined) and, in the 87th minute, gave up their only goal.

Perspective on suffering

Perhaps some credit should go to the San Jose Earthquakes, who could be seen as responding to each half’s hardships in admirable fashion. But watching the game on Saturday, that just didn’t seem to be the case.

When the Timbers were focused, moving the ball quickly and making runs off each others’ play, they had stretches like the beginning of the second half, when the combination play in front of the North End was more intricate than at any other time under Savarese. To go from those levels to what we saw at the end of each half, when the team was neither holding nor moving the ball at with the same focus, hinted the downturn was less about the Earthquakes response than the Timbers’ mentality. At some point, the team lost focus.

As Savarese’s remarks indicate, the team could have done better, and in their response after halftime, they showed themselves capable of doing so. But the dips in focus are also part of a predictable process the team will have to continue over the next couple of months. In going from a team scraping for points to one that’s asserting control, the Timbers have to get more used to dictating games than responding to them. They’ll have to get more accustomed to teams responding to them rather than having to respond to others. They’ll have to get play like the favorites they’re becoming.

This is more than a flip of a mental switch. It requires a change of tactics, albeit a subtle one. For much of the season, the Timbers have attacked with an urgency that implied time was precious, and opportunities had to be cultivated as quickly as possible. If more teams sit in, Portland will have to be more patient, stretch seams in oppositions’ shapes instead lest they try to burst through walls.

In addition, the team will have to become more accustomed to defending with the ball. If other teams are going to let the Timbers play as favorites, Portland will need to nurture their 2-0 leads while in possession and not let their own seams open up, as one did on Jungwirth’s goal. All the skill and experience that the team cultivated this offseason has to prove as effective with maintenance as opportunism.

It’s unreasonable to expect that to happen in one game, and with two matches against Los Angeles FC coming up (July 15, 3pm PT, ESPN in regular-season play and July 18, 7:30pm, in U.S. Open Cup play), Portland may not be back on the dictator’s throne for a while. But as the team’s home-road schedule evens out and the season’s final months bring more play against the Western Conference, the Timbers will find themselves as the predators more often. And if they’re to reach their goals, Portland will have to improve their predatory ways, lest they become preyed upon.