Tega Iboka, Timbers vs. Loons, 2.19.20

PORTLAND, Ore. – Wednesday night at Providence Park produced two stories: one which felt important in the moment, leaving the other overshadowed; one which could be irrelevant beyond the preseason, while the other has a longer impact; one which may only be worth talking about now, while the other defines the team’s future – to the extent anything can in a preseason.

But that Major League Soccer preseason took a worrisome turn over the final hour of the Portland Timbers' Wednesday night 4-2 loss to Minnesota United FC. Yes, the Timbers heavily changed their lineup, leaving the 11 starters we’re expecting in the lineup come March 1’s opener unused. Yet the patterns on the goals the team gave up felt all too familiar, familiar in a way that transcended one group’s performance.

Build down the left. Play the ball in. Find an attacker at the far post. Score. Especially on the Loons’ first two goals, the playbook we saw the Vancouver Whitecaps used on Sunday, in their 2-1 loss to Portland, again proved fruitful. The pattern prompts questions as to whether the approach is transcending the personnel.

“If I would have seen [the problems] in the first half, during [the] first 30, 35 minutes, then it would be a concern,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, when asked how worried he was about the team’s defensive breakdowns. In the night’s postgame press conference, he’d already expressed happiness with how his team performed over the game’s initial half-hour. After that spell, “we didn’t carry on that very good play ...,” he felt.

“[T]he situations that happened were more mental than tactically not doing what we needed to do,” he explained. “We saw in those first 30, 35 minutes that [Minnesota] didn’t create much because everyone focused, everyone concentrated doing what we needed to do. And I think once we felt too comfortable that we were doing so well, we started slacking, and that’s a sign of maturity that needs to improve.”

That is the first story of the night – the headline from an evening where preseason’s muted context butted heads with in-game’s disappointing reality. Too many times on Wednesday, we had to remind ourselves it was just a preseason game. We had to remind ourselves that the Timbers’ starters weren’t playing. We had to remind ourselves the game didn’t count.

Any time you have to resort to those mental gymnastics, you know your team’s performance was poor. “We never want to lose 4-2,” Savarese admitted, “because for me, any friendly match is still a match that’s important for us to get a result we want.” Whether those misgivings prove relevant in 10 days, when a regular-season rematch with Minnesota will count in the standings (4:30pm PT, FS1, TICKETS), will define Wednesday’s importance.

The night’s second story will take much longer to play out, even if, for the Timbers’ organization, it’s a story that’s been playing out for years. To date, the club’s Academy program has been the subject of as much criticism as hope, with some in the youth soccer space noting how few products have broken into the first team. Given the only long-term contributor the Academy’s produced for the first team is fullback Marco Farfan – somebody’s who has yet to be a regular starter – the criticism is a fair one. Even if there are reasons why Portland isn’t matching other teams’ output, they are, ultimately, not matching other teams’ output.

Wednesday gave us the latest hint that may be changing. Over the course of the game’s 90 minutes, five players who are either active in or graduated from the team’s Academy system saw action. Farfan was the most prominent, starting the game at left back, but come full time, forward Gio Calixtro, winger Blake Bodily and midfielder Carlos Anguiano were all on the field.

So was Tega Ikoba. Unlike his fellow Timbers Academy products, Iboka is still active in the program (Anguiano, Bodily and Calixtro are all expected to be significant contributors this season for Timbers 2). At 16 years old, Iboka has played predominantly for the club’s U-17 team, though he has recently earned more time with the U-19s. Over the last month, he’s been a regular with first-team training, also spending two weeks with the MLS squad in Costa Rica.

On Wednesday, Ikoba played the game’s last 15 minutes, a span that marked his Goose Hollow debut.

“In my dreams,” Iboka said postgame, when asked if he thought his 2020 would feature an appearance at Providence Park. “Of course, I have a dream to play professionally, but I didn’t think I’d be able to reach this level that quick.”

Iboka’s rise though over the last season has become one of the highlights of Portland’s Academy. A part of the team’s residency program, the Alabama-by-way-of-Iowa resident has scored seven times in nine games at the U-17 level this season. That performance has earned him more time at the next tier, the U-19s, where he’s tallied one goal in eight appearances, only three of which have been starts.

The trajectory marks a steep climb for Iboka, whose Academy season started with him battling a persisting ankle injury. Now, he’s playing in front of five-figure crowds.

“It was crazy,” he explained. “The crowd and everything, just overwhelming a little bit. I felt very welcome and very happy to play.”

There were other active Academy members on the bench Wednesday night. Goalkeeper Hunter Sulte, a U-19, didn’t get minutes, but he also trained with the team in Costa Rica. Defender Mitchell Ferguson (U-17) has seen occasional time training with the first team since joining the residency program from Illinois and made his professional debut last season for Timbers 2. 

For other organizations, dressing seven Academy products wouldn’t be such a big deal, but there is no confusion as to where programs like FC Dallas’ stand in relation to the Timbers’, at the moment. Portland’s Academy has to keep moving forward. But in comparison to previous years, when the luxury of preseason would still see a lack of Academy products among the first-team ranks, the program seems to be moving forward; or, if not truly moving forward, at least giving some indication it’s aiming in the right direction.

“A true club needs to make sure that they work from top to bottom in a united way,” Savarese said. “We saw it today. We saw where the Timbers are right now in relation to that in making sure that we pay attention to what is coming in the future.”

In all likelihood, Wednesday’s game will fade into irrelevance, as almost every other preseason outcome has. But if you’re looking at stories which may prove relevant beyond Saturday’s preseason finale, there are thorns and there are roses. If the defense’s problems prove a pattern, that thorn could compromise at least part of the season. If, however, the Academy is starting to bloom, the club could start producing more roses.