David Guzman, Timbers at Galaxy, 3.4.18

PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese confirmed that Saturday’s choice to omit David Guzmán from his game-day roster was a coach’s decision, two words that have become euphemistic, in coaching parlance.

Of course, everything that happens with teams on game days – from lineups, to tactics, to substitutions – are, technically, coaches’ decisions, but in the context of Wednesday’s press conference, “coach’s decision” meant Savarese’s Costa Rican midfielder was healthy enough to be chosen. The decision to leave him out of the 18 came down to coaching prerogative.

“Guzmán was coming back from an injury,” Savarese explained. “Now, he’s fit to play. He’s training fully.”

Savarese’s team prevailed Saturday, posting a 1-0 victory over rival Seattle Sounders FC in the teams’ 100th edition of their derby, but the 18 players Savarese chose to dress left a lingering question: When will Guzmán return to the Timbers’ lineup?

It’s a question that has even more relevance in light of the coming 2018 FIFA World Cup. Guzmán was one of the 23 players named this week to Costa Rica’s tournament roster, ensuring he will be with his national team in Russia next month. But while building back from a knee injury picked up with the Ticos on March 23, Guzmán has not featured for the Timbers since March 10. The 45 minutes of action he saw against Saint Louis FC, in a USL match with Timbers 2, is the only competitive time he’s had in nearly two months.

“I was ready to play in the last game,” against Seattle, Guzmán said this week, when asked about his health. “It was just the coach’s decision that I didn’t play. But, I’m ready to go, I hope that I get picked for the next game, and I can get some minutes in the team.”

That a healthy Guzmán hasn’t slotted right back into Portland’s midfield hints at a reality of the Timbers’ new, improved midfield, one that’s been bolstered by three key offseason additions. With players like Cristhian Paredes, Andy Polo and Andrés Flores playing well in the middle, returning to the lineup isn’t just a matter of health. It’s also a matter for form.

“It was my decision this past weekend because I felt, probably, he needed a little bit more, in some areas, to be able to be where we wanted,” Savarese explained.

This situation isn’t unique to Guzmán. Central defender Bill Tuiloma played well when he assumed Liam Ridgewell’sstarting role ahead of the Timbers’ third game, in Dallas. Since Ridgewell’s return to the starting lineup three games ago, though, the Timbers haven’t conceded a goal. Ridgewell has earned his playing time, just as left back Zarek Valentin has earned his ahead of the pending return of Vytas.

“We’ve been very pleased with the progress of our team,” Savarese explained, describing the factors that have played into Portland’s four-game winning streak, but also alluding some of the dynamics which influence his playing-time decisions. He has been pleased with, “how well the guys are working; how much competition we’re creating in practice; how everybody wants to participate; how everybody’s working for each other, to make sure we’re a more solid team.”

Guzmán’s situation is different, though. He and midfielder Andy Polo are likely to be leaving the team at some point this month (Polo is one of 24 players named to Peru’s provisional national team World Cup roster). On one hand, that creates a window within which Savarese can see his midfield distributor before losing him for potentially two months.

On the other hand, the team has their week-to-week priorities, the primary of which is picking the best team to face Los Angeles FC on Saturday at Providence Park (12pm PT, FOX).

“We have to think about, first, the match and what we’re looking at for the match,” Savarese made clear when asked about his potential World Cup absences. “Definitely, we have two different situations. Polo is in one situation. Guzmán is a different situation.”

With each, though, international success is a priority. Savarese not only acknowledges that the World Cup is a special opportunity but that opportunity helps the Timbers. Better competition produces better players, giving Portland the benefit when his midfielders return.

“It’s a great thing, and it’s a difficult thing,” he said, when asked about losing talent, “because you want your players to do so well that they bring attention to their national teams, because that means that they are doing really well. The bad part is you won’t have them for a period of time, and it’s always good to have them.

“But also, you want them to experience bigger things, to be in these games. For Portland, Guzmán being in the World Cup is going to allow him to grow more, to be more confident, to be more experienced. We are sure they are going to bring that to us, and that will make our team even stronger.”

But only if Guzmán stays healthy. He is back to full strength, both he and Savarese agree, but he has also played 45 minutes of competitive soccer in two months. To throw him into an MLS match without his rhythm, without the proper time to adjust to being back on the field, could not only hurt the Timbers on the field. It could hurt Guzmán’s prospects next month.

“Right now, we just want to make sure that they go to the World Cup healthy, that they’re able to contribute to the national team,” Savarese said, when asked about managing these final weeks with Guzmán and Polo. “We want them to be successful in the World Cup, and that’s what we’re doing.”.