Timbers defense in focus as Savarese looks for solutions

Giovanni Savarese looks on from the sidelines at Providence Park (August 15, 2021; Portland, OR, USA;  Timbers vs Seattle  at Providence Park. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Timbers)

BEAVERTON, Ore. — There are two themes dominating the buildup to the Portland Timbers’ Sunday trip to Seattle.

The first is the match itself; or more specifically, the matchup. Any game between the Timbers and Sounders is going to be highly anticipated. The teams form the most celebrated rivalry in Major League Soccer. The second theme has nothing to do with the Sounders, though. Instead, it’s all about the Timbers’ recent results.

Portland goes into Sunday’s game with one win in their last seven games, having been outscored by nine goals in that 1-4-2 (wins-losses-draws) stretch. The team is still middle-of-the-pack in the Western Conference — eighth out of 15 teams; two points out of a playoff spot — but with the worst goal difference in the West, the Timbers need to start showing significant improvement.

“It’s been a disappointment to date, there’s no changing that,” the team’s Chief Executive Officer, Merritt Paulson, said of the team’s season this week on Talk Timbers. “This is a year [where] we have high expectations, and clearly, there are things that aren’t right, right now, with the club. It’s just a question of understanding what those things are.”

In his Friday media availability, Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese talked about one of the most obvious areas: goal prevention. Portland is last in the West in goals allowed (39 in 20 games) and next-to-last in the entire league. Only Toronto FC has allowed more goals (44 in 21 games). The Timbers haven’t kept a shutout since July 17 and have only three clean sheets this season.

“Defensively, we haven’t been good,” Savarese admitted. “We’ve allowed too many goals. And that’s the responsibility of all of us: the players, coaches, me as the leader of this group — as being the head person — first. We have gone through a lot of videos. We have addressed a lot of the things. We have worked because we have seen repetitive patterns that need to be better …”

Immediately, Savarese sensed what the followup question would be: How is this time different?

“We have worked in the past, but I think the difference from then until now is that this week, we have been able to have a longer week in which we can sit down with players, talk [with] transparency and be honest with each other, make sure that we find our way.”

On Friday, Savarese conceded that, “for different reasons,” the Timbers have lost their way. Injuries were cited as one of the reasons. International callups and the responsibility of spring’s Concacaf Champions League were also evoked. “We had great expectations at the beginning of this year, going into [Champions League] and participating with the same group that did so well, last year …,” he said. “In all that has happened this year … we have lost our way.”

Since the Timbers’ worries began at the beginning of last month — when they lost at Austin FC, 4-1, on July 1 — Savarese has had to say similar things, becoming blunter after each loss in a way that makes his subtext clear. He knows the Timbers have not been good. He understands the disappointment. He understands the need to improve.

“It’s what the fans deserve,” Savarese said, addressing his team’s need to improve. “Because ultimately, we all care, very much.

“I’m a lover of the game personally, and I can understand why fans are frustrated. I can tell you, one hundred percent, that our players, coaching staff and especially me, we want to be in a place like Portland. We want people who are passionate, who care for the team, that right now are upset, or devastated … it’s where we are, as well.”

The first couple of times coaches are this blunt, it can be reassuring. It’s a way to tell fans you’re taking the team’s problems seriously. It’s better than deflecting; than acting like the results really aren’t that big of a problem. But when that tone becomes a regular feature of interviews, urgency needs to start translating to the field.

The Timbers recently changed their base formation, moving from using a 4-2-3-1 as their default formation to relying on a 4-3-3 approach. Along the way, more players combinations and tactical approaches have been tried in central defense and central midfield. Portland have started to be more urgent in their search for solutions, but to date, none of those solutions have changed the team’s course. They are still giving up too many goals.

Until some solutions emerge, trips like this Sunday’s to Seattle may seem ill-timed. After all, the Sounders are in first place in the Western Conference and have two wins in as many games against the Timbers this season. At the same time, the Timbers played reasonably well in both of those matches, and although Seattle took over each derby in the match’s final half-hour, Portland can look at Sunday’s task as one of duration, not discovery. Their success in the first 60-or-so minutes of games against Seattle show they can play with the West’s best. Their failures in the last 30 minutes show how fragile success can be in their sport.

Two days before a third crack at the Sounders, Savarese emphasized his trust in the squad. “I have tremendous faith in this group,” he said. Two days before that, Paulson expressed the same level of trust in the Timbers’ decision-makers. “They have my confidence to right the ship.” Righting the ship, though, is now a matter of urgency. The Timbers must rediscover who they are. Even in a rivalry week, that theme is most important.

“[We have] to simplify,” Savarese said, “to go back to what we are, to who we are first, before we think about the opposition.”