20211023 dario zuparic

BEAVERTON, Ore. — The tight turnarounds between the Portland Timbers’ last two games costs the team time to get crucial defense depth healthy ahead of Wednesday’s loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps. Left back Claudio Bravo and centerback Bill Tuilloma, unable to dress for the previous Saturday’s loss at the LA Galaxy with thigh injuries, were again unable to play, leaving head coach Giovanni Savarese with few options as the Timbers failed to protect Wednesday’s 2-0 lead.

Unfortunately for Portland, when it comes getting players back for today’s match at the Colorado Rapids, it is a good news, bad news situation. The good news is that midfielder Diego Chara, suspended for the Whitecaps game because of yellow-card accumulation, will be available against the Rapids. The bad news: both Bravo and Tuiloma are listed with the same status they had for Wednesday’s game, “questionable,” while attacking linchpin Sebastían Blanco has been added to the injury list with the same status after picking up a thigh injury of his own.

“The morale of the group, here, has been very good these past two days,” Savarese said on Friday, before his team’s flight to Colorado. “We're ready to now get on the plane, go to Colorado, play this very important match against a good team: a team that is organized, has their ideas very clear, the way we also have our ideas and our plan very clear. It is going to be a huge game for us to get more points, to qualify for the playoff.”

When it comes to seeding for a potential Western Conference playoff spot, Saturday’s game may but the most important remaining in the Timbers’ regular season. Portland, currently fourth in the West, will enter the game six points behind third-place Colorado – a bitter distance considering over the last two matchdays, the Timbers had chances to significantly close that gap. The Rapids drew at home on Wednesday with the Seattle Sounders after losing on Saturday at Real Salt Lake.

Had the Timbers protected Wednesday’s lead and held on for a draw against the Galaxy, they would be within two points of the Rapids, meaning a win at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Saturday would vault them into third in the Western Conference. Instead, Portland now needs a win to get back within three points of Colorado.

“The truth is, in the last game, we didn't defend well in three moments,” Savarese explained, having been asked about his team’s defensive problems. “[Vancouver] didn't have more than four attacks [in the second half]. Three of the four times, we didn't defend those attacks well, and in those moments, we have to be better.

“From one point of view, we can't be giving up three goals on four chances, but on the other hand, we defended well at other moments. We only saw four moments where they [could attack]. Against the Galaxy … we look at that game differently,” he said, conceding the team also made mistakes in two crucial moments.

In terms of solutions, Chara’s return will be particularly important. Though it’s hard to see how, specifically, Chara would have preventing Wednesday’s second and third goals, the control he helps Portland maintain makes it less likely teams reach the type of spaces Vancouver found. When the Timbers made their crucial mistakes, the Whitecaps had already gotten to dangerous spots.

On Vancouver’s first goal of the night, though, Chara’s presence was especially missed. In the night’s 63rd minute, Whitecaps attacker Deiber Caicedo was allowed to dribble to ball from the field’s middle third into the hert of Portland’s penalty area, where he had an easy finish. That type of goal felt like something that never happens against the Timbers, largely because Chara is usually there to stop that type of run.

Farther back in the formation, there may not be the same reinforcements. While it’s possible Bravo and Tuiloma could play, it’s also possible Savarese will be limited to the same options he had in Los Angeles, as well as in Goose Hollow. Without them, Portland’s biggest late-match change has been bringing on center back Zac McGraw, going to three central defenders, and relying on at least one natural winger to serve a wingback’s role. Pablo Bonilla has had to go most of the difference at left back. Josecarlos Van Rankin, called for game-deciding penalties in each of the last two games, has played the bulk of the minutes at right back.

Personnel, though, is only part of the issue. As with this summer, when problems preventing goals had the Timbers at the edge of the Western Conference’s playoff picture, personnel is working in tandem with execution. We’ve seen players like Van Rankin play well in stretches during the season, so how quickly he and his teammates can return to their best informs how much Bravo and Tuiloma are missed. If the healthy Timbers play to their capabilities, they can withstand their absences. Otherwise, Savarese will miss those extra options. Add in the potential absence of Blanco, and preventing goals becomes even more important.

If the Timbers are to climb another spot in the West, they’ll need to return to their form of three weeks ago. That can happen by getting players back, or it can happen with healthy players raising their levels. Either way, if Portland wants to preserve a chance of moving up in the West, one of those things going to have to happen in Colorado.