The Portland Timbers fought to a 2-2 draw Saturday against the New England Revolution with a very different lineup than the one that took the field a little less that three months before in the MLS Cup final at Providence Park.
With injuries, roster moves and other elements at play for Portland, the average age of the Timbers XI started on the field to face New England was 26 years old. It featured U22 Initiative signing Santiago Moreno (21), Cristhian Paredes (23), and Claudio Bravo and Zac McGraw (both 24). It was a full four years younger, by average, than the starting XI that took to the pitch in December for MLS Cup.
But that younger lineup played a talented Revs side—the reigning MLS Supporters’ Shield winners—even across the board with Portland coming back from a goal deficit twice as well as narrowly edging New England on possession (54.6% to 45.4%), shots (17 to 16) and on total team XG (2.1 to 1.1).
Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese spoke about the emergence and strength of this younger side, even if it is only one game into the regular season.
“[I’m] very content to see how the younger guys have been able to step in, like Santiago Moreno, like Bravo, Paredes,” he said after training Tuesday. “These players that still are developing and still are getting better.”
The key, for Savarese, in making this work is a balance between veteran leadership and ongoing growth.
“You need first to have some experienced players around you that can help you succeed on the field,” he said. “Second is about adapting to understand the way we play, the things that we expect from them and work with them individually and getting better tactically, technically and physically.
“All around we’re doing a lot of work.”
That work was on display Saturday. Moreno had a gorgeous assist on Portland’s first goal, eluding three New England defenders before dishing a perfect pass for Dairon Asprilla to finish. Saturday’s bench also featured recent MLS SuperDraft signings Justin Rasmussen (23) and Diego Gutierrez (22), Costa Rican international Marvin Loría (24), Homegrown player Blake Bodily (24) and the team’s latest U22 Initiative signing David Ayala (19).
“We are excited with all the guys that we have that are young plus the experienced players that are helping those players develop,” said Savarese.
With both starting centerbacks Dario Zuparic and Larrys Mabiala still recovering from sports hernia surgeries, Savarese also touted the play of defenders Bill Tuiloma and Zac McGraw who stepped up Saturday to put in strong shifts. The two centerbacks had both played the majority of minutes in the preseason for Portland and are connecting well along the backline.
“We had a good performance and there’s little things that we can improve on as a team and as individuals but overall, good,” said Tuiloma when asked about the team’s result Saturday.
Now Portland turns their attention for their first road game of the season Sunday when they travel to southern California to play Los Angeles FC (7pm PT, FS1). Tuiloma believes the team is ready and must stay balanced throughout the lineup.
“It's important, [with them] having the likes of [Carlos] Vela, and all the guys who play up front for LAFC,” he said. “They can come at us quick and are pretty strong. So we’ve got to have that connection throughout the back four and also in the middle to midfielders and be prepared for what they’re going to give us.”