TUCSON, Ariz. – The Portland Timbers drew 1-1 with the Houston Dynamo Wednesday in a preseason match at Kino Sports Complex, yet as with all things preseason, the true measures of progress went beyond the score.
On the most cursory of levels, the progress was obvious. The Portland Timbers’ first XI lately went about 65 minutes – 45 more than they on Feb. 3 against Seattle Sounders FC, and double the time they spent on the field versus the San Jose Earthquakes in a scrimmage on Jan. 31. If preseason is all about staging for the MLS season opener, those minute totals are progress, by themselves.
“The main goal today was to be able to bring good intensity and make sure that we were a compact team,” head coach Giovanni Savarese explained after his team’s draw, “to make sure we were able to keep the ball and be fluid. I felt we did a lot of good things toward that direction.”
Savarese was justified in his feeling. Though the Timbers went down early, the changes Portland’s new coach has made to the team’s attack are starting to take hold. The team was noticeably quicker at getting the ball forward, electing to try passes between lines and around defenders rather than use its possession to stretch the defense. This was a faster attack, one that’s more intent on hitting space with urgency than the Timbers side that closed the 2017 season.
The evidence was apparent through the game, but no more so than on the two Diego Valeri chances that were valiantly stopped by Houston’s rookie goalkeeper, Michael Nelson. The first saw Valeri with a one-on-one look against the Southern Methodist product only to see the Dynamo hopeful come up with an athletic kick save. The second time, Portland penetration collapsed Houston’s back line and created space for Valeri on a ball played back to the edge of the penalty box. The midfielder's left-footed blast for the left of Nelson’s goal was parried wide by a leaping stop.
The saves were emblematic of Portland’s day, one which saw a number of quality chances denied by Nelson and Houston’s second-half goalkeeper, Chris Seitz. For Savarese, though, the lack of finishing is, at this point of the season, a non-issue.
“The finishing is coming,” Savarese reassured. “We have quality players. I think the important thing is that we created the chances, and how we created those chances. I think that’s the most important part.”
Portland created many of those chances in the first half. Midfielder Dairon Asprilla was able to convert on a pinpoint cross from the wing sent in by midfielder Sebastián Blanco to even the score at 1-1.
The two themes Savarese espoused most post-match were fluidity and compactness. The ball needs to move faster, he said, and in that regard, the team is improving. The tightness of the team’s defensive shape, however, was something Savarese identified as a positive.
“One thing that has been very good is how we collectively find a way to be compact and how we are finding ways to deal with those moments where we lose the ball,” he said. “How we recover those balls quicker, and how we are going back to make sure we don’t leave to many spaces open when they are attacking – so the counters are not as dangerous as, maybe, at the beginning, when we started the preseason.”