BEAVERTON, Ore. – Portland Timbers’ head coach Giovanni Savarese’s assessments of his team’s games rarely change significantly with time. The views he offers in the minutes after a final whistle almost always line up with those he’ll offer in the days that follow, after he and his staff break down tape of the two hours that just passed.
This trait isn’t exclusive to Savarese. Any competent coaching staff is going to give its players a clear set of objectives ahead of a game. Whether it be in a game’s immediate aftermath or in the days that follow, coaches’ assessments almost always come down to those objectives. You either achieved them, or you didn’t, something most staffs are able to discern in real time.
What changes is the detail behind the assessments. You can know, in real time, that a midfielder failed to track a run into the team’s defense. What happened to expose that error, how the full team reacted to the run or how the opposition identified the weakness is what gets dissected through hours and hours of film.
Come this Tuesday at the Timbers’ Training Center in Beaverton, Oregon, Savarese was able to provide that extra level of detail. And in that detail, when asked about his team’s Sunday execution in its 2-1, preseason victory over Vancouver Whitecapps FC, two themes emerged. At the attacking end of the field, his thoughts came down to unbalancing the opposition, while at the other end, Savarese highlighted his team’s emergency defending.
Different ways to unbalance
Perhaps the most common critiques of the Timbers’ 2019 attack revolved around two ideas: Portland’s dependence on counterattacking; as well as its inability to consistently break down defenses that played deep in their own end of the field.
The first critique is less of an issue than a matter of context. Every team would prefer, in the face of alternatives, to be good at counterattacking. They’d prefer to be good at everything, right? The words dependence or overreliance come down to what the Timbers did when teams became more guarded. Eliminating Portland’s transition chances proved a major focus for opponents during 2019’s final games at Providence Park.
“I think that has been our style in the past two years, predominantly, especially when we played away from home,” Savarese said on Tuesday, when asked by a Stumptown Footy correspondent about his team’s counterattacking play “When we came home last year, we changed, and tried to be a little bit more offensive minded, [to] attack more. Teams set themselves a little more defensively.
“We are growing to make sure we’re a team that can play both ways, to be strong.”
That’s where the concept of unbalancing teams comes into play. On Sunday against the Whitecaps, the pattern from last year resurfaced, where the Timbers were able to build play down their flanks as teams proved willing to concede that space. The choice the opposition’s really making, there, is about balance. They want to maintain their defensive shape. They’re choosing organization over pursuit, or pressure. They’re forcing the Timbers to execute when Portland has to move back across the field and try to get closer to goal.
Think back to the scene you saw often last season. Sebastián Blanco has the ball. He’s squaring up his defender, the opponent’s right back. It’s one-on-one, but noticeably so. Nobody is coming to help the defender. The opponent is willing to concede that battle, if need be, maintain their approach in the penalty area, and bet the Timbers can’t make them pay for their approach.
The September 15 loss to D.C. United, 1-0 at Providence Park, last season. The following game’s 2-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls. The next week’s 0-0 draw against Minnesota United FC. At the point of 2019 when Portland expected to make up points dropped early in the season, team’s had figured out how to stymie them at Providence Park. Sit deep. Force them to execute. Maybe take three with an against-the-play goal.
“We have to [find] more solutions,” Savarese concedes, “in making sure that we are very ambitious to try to find different ways that we unbalance teams.”
But what, exactly, does unbalance mean? When defenses are given no reason to change their plans, they can defend from a place of strength, reacting from their planned, base approach. But if defenders have to react to the Timbers’ actions, moving out of their planned spaces to address point danger, that shape gets sacrifices. Different areas become open up. Opportunities emerge, and in their need to deviate from their preferred approaches, defenses become more likely prone to mistakes, or otherwise be in uncomfortable spots.
The acquisition of Yimmi Chara could help. When attacks are building through Blanco on the left, Chara’s presence should give the Timbers a greater point of danger at the far post. As play moves from Blanco to the middle – to Diego Valeri – and back across, the team’s new Designated Player will either be on the end of it or drawing attention, creating space for right back Jorge Moreira or central midfielder Cristhian Paredes to join play. How that thought works out when games start to count remains to be seen, but in theory, Chara’s acquisition is one way the Timbers are “growing” to solve their problems.
The other clear additions are at forward, where Felipe Mora and Jarek Niezgoda provide additional options to last year’s starting striker, Jeremy Ebobisse. At times, Ebobisse’s continuously improving play in front of defenses, dropping into midfield to help distribution, may be what unlocks an opposing defense. At other times, it could be the short, penalty-box bursts from Mora that attack areas defenses are neglecting. And yet at others, it could be Niezgoda’s ability to move into spaces along the defense, both probing weaknesses and, in has ability to pull opponents into new areas, exposing new ones. All three should be able to score goals, but this year, Savarese and his staff will have multiple ways to attack problems.
There’s also a more subtle evolution, one that goes beyond the roster and into the sessions in Beaverton. No matter who is on the field, the Timbers’ approach must continue to evolve.
“I think we showed last game, in preseason against Vancouver, that we can be an attacking team, that we can counter, but also that we can keep possession and unbalance the opposition,” Savarese said. “That’s one thing that we keep working on. That way, we can be a team that’s flexible and that can be confident playing the two ways.”
Emergency defending testing Timbers’ imbalance
At the other end of the field, a similar problem is in focus, albeit in a different form. On Sunday, Portland’s defense was largely solid, albeit in a sport where largely solid is rarely good enough. Where one or two defensive breakdowns can mean the difference between three points and none, the Timbers defense looked generous, giving up multiple good chances to Vancouver.
“Defensively, I think that we looked good,” Savarese said, “but there were moments that we gave opportunities that they were dangerous – a couple of situations that we have to make sure that, now, we do better as a team, and also, in those emergency moments, make better decisions, to make sure that we deal with those situations better.”
Those moments tended to happen when, in a different way, Portland became imbalanced.
Each preseason under Savarese, the Timbers have tried to evolve how proficient they are at pressing the opposition. At the end of the coach’s first year (2018), the team infrequently asserted itself high in the opponents’ defensive end. Come the end of last season, that had changed, with personnel differences and more time under Savarese allowing Portland to start forcing teams into tougher decisions higher up the field.
This year, the personnel as evolved a little more. Players have had a little more time with Savarese’s ideas, as has Savarese with his players’. Though four games of preseason, that’s led to an increased commitment to pressing opponent’s high, even if that approach comes with the security of a consequence-free preseason.
“I think the way we pressured high, you got to give a lot of credit to the guys,” Savarese said of the Vancouver performance, “because we sustained it through the entire match ... it was very good. We won many, many balls and we were very dangerous.”
The flip side of that commitment is the risk. When teams break Portland’s pressure, it can leave Timbers defenders having to come up with their own solutions, if not in the first part of a transition moment than the second – when the ball is played in from the flank. At those moments, the Timbers’ defense can stay tight and organized, but on the break, opponents will still be able to send attackers at the back line, force defenders to move and make new decisions, and capitalize when those decisions don’t work.
It’s one definition of emergency defending: what players do when the plans break down. Portland is trying to create those scenarios in attack and limit them in defense, but with a commitment to pressing comes an acceptance of the consequences.
“It’s all part of what we wanted to see,” Savarese said, of Sunday’s breakdowns. “It’s good that it happens now, because it’s what we want, and we continue to want the team to be prepared.”
In his message is some truth, some worry. We are still in the preseason, when teams should be expected to be ambitious with their styles. Part of that ambition, though, is making mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes when games don’t count, are you really pushing yourself enough?
The worry, though, comes in the type of mistakes being made. Few onlookers would describe the Timbers’ 2019 defense, broadly, as poor. Most of the time, the team’s goal prevention looked fine, to the eye. By the numbers, though, the Timbers ranked 10th in the 24-team league in defense. While that ranking was above average, it does represent a place for potential improvement, with limiting uncharacteristic breakdowns a natural place to target.
“I would say that there were probably three moments, or four moments in which Vancouver had good options,” Savarese said. “I wouldn’t say it was because of a lack of effort. I think, maybe, it was in some moments where we get exposed, and we need to do a better job to prevent those things, but also make sure that, in those moments, that [in the] emergency defending that sometimes is going to happen in a game, we make better decisions.”
That comes down to more than the frames before a goal – the end of a highlight where, for example, a man cuts across a defender to head a cross into goal. Did, perhaps, a defender make the right decision to let that runner go, knowing there was a more dangerous player to account for? But also, why was that runner not picked up earlier, by somebody higher up the field? How did the cross get played in, and from such a dangerous spot? What opportunities were there to stop that action before it reached that point of the field? Where, in the team’s emergency defending, could the choices have been better, and how does the coaching staff help reinforce that decision-making process on the practice field?
If Portland continues trying to make life hard for teams higher up the field, there will also be moments, at the back, there it makes life harder on itself. It’s a tradeoff the team both hopes for and hopes it can manage in its favor.
At the other end of their field, the coaches hope to manage a similar tradeoff. They hope building on the foundations that are in place – evolving their attacking-phase approach instead of overhauling it – will help make up the difference between last year’s finish and where, in 2020, they hope to end up.