Night one verdict: Portland, New England open season at contenders' level

PORTLAND, Ore. — The final score didn’t say so, both for the Portland Timbers and their Saturday guests, the New England Revolution, the first game of the Major League Soccer season was a success.

It was a success even though neither team won, both teams gave up too many goals, and at the point when each side could have created a decisive goal, they each came up just short. But on Saturday, nine months before the final game of the 2022 season, the difference between three points and one wasn’t the bottom line. It was more important that the theory of each team’s success— the plan that could make both legitimate title contenders — was evident at Providence Park.

With both New England and Portland, the theories were clear. The Revolution went into the home of last year’s Western Conference champions and took two leads, with goals from right back Brandon Bye and midfielder Sebastian Lletget coming on each side of halftime. For the Timbers, they fought back from two deficits and did so with a starting lineup missing between five and six expected starters. Their 2-2 draw with the Supporters’ Shield holders provided context for an offseason of few signings, showcasing the depth of their carried-over roster.

"We saw two very good teams playing a very entertaining and good soccer match,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said postgame, having already alluded to the high level his team, missing prominent pieces, showed in game one.

As New England head coach Bruce Arena alluded coming out of halftime, the Revolution had their own obstacles. They’d been sitting in Foxborough, Massachusetts, doing “nothing” for a couple of weeks, he reminded FOX’s broadcast, an allusion to the Concacaf Champions League matches New England were unable to play against their Haitian opponents (Cavaly AS withdrew from the competition). Starting goalkeeper Matt Turner, Arsenal-bound this summer, was unable to play because of an ankle injury, and the team is still integrating new, important pieces like Lletget and center back Omar Gonzalez.

The Timbers, though, were limited, so much so that when it was announced last month starting center backs Larrys Mabiala and Dario Zuparic would miss the season opener, it was widely assumed Portland’s season would get off to a slow start. Starting midfielder Eryk Williamson, recovering from a knee injury, was already expected to be sidelined, while striker Felipe Mora and midfielder Sebastián Blanco joined him as injury concerns. With right back Pablo Bonilla — expected to battle for the starting spot — away from the team, around half of Portland’s potential starting lineup was not in the XI at kickoff.

To the Timbers’ credit, you couldn’t tell they were shorthanded. Though they went down to Bye’s corner-kick conversion just before halftime, the rest of the period played out on relatively even footing. New England was given possession and the ability to cross from the edges of Portland’s defense, while the Timbers’ skill was evident on the counterattack, or when the Revolution defense settled too deep toward their goal. Chains of one-touch passes created a duel between Portland’s near-goal execution and the Rev’s ability to convert on a corner. Forty-one minutes in, the Revs won that battle.

"The first half, we did a lot of good things,” Savarese said. “We defended well. We moved the ball well. Even though the game was level, I felt that we can’t find more spaces in behind (the Revolution defense).”

In the second half, though, the Timbers broke through when Santiago Moreno chipped Darion Asprilla in behind the Revs’ backline. The Revolution answered with their own piece of penalty-area execution, allowing Lletget to make it 2-1 just past the hour mark, only for Yimmi Chara to craft the night’s standout moment. Chara’s bicycle kick from the penalty spot is not only an obligatory MLS Goal of the Year candidate, but it also helped deliver a point on night one.

“I thought it was a really nice goal,” Chara said in Spanish, when asked if he would call his goal a chilena or chalaca. “A chilena is what I would call it.”

Focusing too much on the result falls into the same trap we trip each opener, or during the debates of the preceding offseason. That myopia is a natural part of how we talk about sport, but so is the emotion and irrationality that fuels our words. In truth, we know Major League Soccer is more marathon than sprint, with months of potential roster moves lying between Game 1 and Game 34. Game 1 only shows how close you are to your dream selves.

That’s why both New England and Portland should be happy with night one. The Revolution not only showed the formula they used to in record-setting 2021 can still work, but they gave every reason to believe Saturday was not a fluke. Attacking stars Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou, and Adam Buska look just as potent as last season, while players like Bye, DeJuan Jones, and Andrew Farrell looked capable of again buttressing the defense. Lletget looked good in his Revolution debut, as did Gonzalez. Just as every MLS team must improve in the offseason, the Revs seem ready to move forward.

The Timbers do, too. Moreno was the biggest example of that, but 90 minutes from striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda reminded viewers the Timbers will likely have their Designated Player for a full season. Blanco coming on in the final minutes hinted he might be available throughout 2022, too. Aljaz Ivacic performed well in his first 90 as the team’s starting goalkeeper, while Zac McGraw’s shift in central defense helped justified the team’s plan to hold off on center back reinforcements. For now, those reinforcements will be Mabiala and Zuparic.

At least, that’s the theory, but so early in a season, that theory is what’s most important. Both the Timbers and Revolution plan to be in the title picture. After night one: so far, so good.