Giovanni Savarese #2, Timbers @ Galaxy, 3.4.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

The dilemma: How to diagnose the Timbers two games into the 2018 season

When I think of judging center backs, I think of what happened to Real Salt Lake’s Justen Glad in the first game of the 2018 MLS regular-season.

Glad, 21, may be one of the most promising young defenders in the league, and when RSL visited FC Dallas to open the season, Mike Petke’s team seemed intent on letting him display his potential. Against a Dallas team that challenges defenses with forward Maxi Urruti’s workrate, winger Michael Barrios’ speed from the right as well as Mauro Diaz’s playmaking in the middle, Glad was left alone to hold down his side of defense, with veteran left back Demar Phillips constantly venturing far up field and leaving RSL’s future star to cover two spots.

And for most of that March 3 match in Frisco, Texas, RSL’s approach worked. Glad was everything U.S. Soccer hopes the youth international becomes, using every ounce of his length, speed and intelligence to help RSL stymie Dallas’ relentless attacks through the match’s first 85 minutes. In the face of shell after shell, Glad was indomitable, giving what should have been an easy Team of the Week performance.

Then came his one mistake. It actually wasn’t even a mistake as much as it was a problem too challenging or big solve, one born of the unending chances FC Dallas had to break him. Test a defender enough, and sooner or later, a mistake will come, and while Glad didn’t exactly mess up in limiting Urruti to a low-percentage ball across Nick Rimando’s six-yard box, that hopeful ball nailed teammate Marcelo Silva, with the ensuing deflection beating Rimando to cost RSL full points in the 1-1 draw.

No victory. No Team of the Week acknowledgement for Glad. No recognition won. Only a reminder that, for defenders, it’s the mistakes that stand out, even when your errors are barely mistakes at all.

But when those mistakes compound …

All of which is a long way of saying judging central defenders can be hard. Even the position’s best performances can go overlooked, and when it comes to the bad nights and moments, sometimes there are other explanations, like a left back abandoning his partner or a team getting too many chances to break one player down.

That’s not to say the criticism Portland Timbers center backs Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala have received through two weeks is unfair. When a team is conceding three goals per 90 minutes, and four of those goals came against an opponent’s second-choice squad, criticism is going to come. It would be weird if it didn’t, and after no points and a minus-five goal difference through two rounds, everybody should be asking questions of the Timbers’ squad.

The questions surrounding Ridgewell and Mabiala, though, are the same ones that should be asked of every player that’s taken the field thus far: What’s happening around them that’s led to their poor results? Because for as much as any of us may want to dig deep on individual performances, it’s also helpful to ask, in the context of a team’s downturn, whether standout play could possibly shine through amid a team’s greater struggles.

Again, let’s focus on the center backs, and let’s start from the defensive byline forward. In Saturday’s 4-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls, we saw multiple moments when communication between goalkeeper Jake Gleeson and at least one of his defenders didn’t seem to be in sync. Is that Gleeson’s responsibility or his defenders? Probably, the answer is “both,” but when unpressured defenders are cutting off balls that goalkeepers usually claim (as happened in the second half on Saturday), the coaches and players have something to work out.

Consider, too, the fullbacks around Ridgewell and Mabiala. Vytas has been hurt, Alvas Powell was taken off early in week one against the Galaxy (and missed the second game with injury), while teams have also found success against Marco Farfan. Can Ridgewell and Mabiala help improve their teammates’ performances? Perhaps, but it depends on what the actual breakdowns were. Again, we have a situation where part of the team’s performance can’t be considered apart from the whole, because when fullbacks struggle, center backs are going to be left exposed.

Let’s keep moving up the field. Has the midfield played to its potential? Through two games, Diego Chara has been sorely missed. Has ball retention helped protect the back four? What about the effectiveness of the press, in either winning balls in the opponent’s half or forcing the opposition into plays that make for easy balls won by the defense and midfield?

This isn’t to say that Portland’s center backs have been good. When you’ve been outscored 6-1 over 180 minutes, you’re not going to find many good performances anywhere in the squad. What you’re more likely to find is a complicated situation that makes isolating problems even more difficult. You don’t have results like a 4-0 loss unless multiple failures are happening at once.

To the extent that Ridgewell and Mabiala have underperformed, they are a reflection of the team as a whole, and while individual errors must always be addressed, they can be addressed in multiple ways.

Everybody on the Timbers must play better, but the results of that effort won’t shine through unless the team, as a whole, moves forward. Right now, two games into the season, the Timbers’ poor performances are feeding off each other.

The effect on Diego Valeri

That reality isn’t spared on the Timbers’ reigning league MVP, Diego Valeri. Coming off a 21-goal, 11-assist season, Valeri has been kept off the scoresheet over 2018’s first 180 minutes, and to watch his play is to see one of MLS’ biggest stars kept uncharacteristically bottled-up.

Part of that may be the Timbers’ play, but this could also reflect opposing tactics, with teams potentially more intent on limiting the maestro’s influence. Perry Kitchen was able to do as much in week one for the LA Galaxy, while Sean Davis, aided by the Red Bulls’ high pressure, was able to do the same for most of game two.

Though an 180-minute sample is small, Valeri’s pass-completion percentage is down almost seven points from last year. His rates of shots, key passes and through balls are also down, as are (obviously) his assists and goals. The measures that are up over last year’s rates? Total long balls per 90 and number of times dispossessed.

 

Pass %

Shots/90

KeyP/90

Passes/90

LongB/90

ThruB/90

Assist/90

Disp/90

Goals/90

2017

79.1

2.9

2.2

43.5

2.0

0.2

0.3

2.1

0.6

2018

72.4

1.5

2.0

43.5

2.5

0.0

0.0

3.0

0.0

For some, a look at the Opta chalkboards available on MLSSoccer.com will help round out the picture. Consider the location of Valeri’s actions over this season’s first two games (left: March 4, 2018 at LA Galaxy; right: March 10, 218 at New York Red Bulls) …

… compared to the last two games of the 2017 season (left: at D.C. United on Oct. 15, 2017; right: vs. Vancouver on Oct. 22, 2017):

Don’t see much difference? That’s understandable. People adept at using these chalkboards can pick out subtle differences at a glance. Me? I have to tally things by hand, but when doing so, you see some early season-over-season differences in Valeri’s numbers.

Over the last two games of 2017, 46.1% of Valeri’s actions took place in the final (attacking) 40 yards of the field. He never acted on the ball greater than 31 times over the rest of the field and never fewer than 23 times in that crucial, final 40 yards.

In the first two games of this season, only 35% of Valeri’s actions are taking place in the field’s final 40 yards. Against LA and New York, he combined for 65 actions outside that attacking zone and had an early-season high 19 actions in the attacking end against New York on Saturday.

That’s a noticeable shift, perhaps reflecting where teams are now allowing Valeri to be influential. As a result, Valeri’s failed to get on the scoresheet. Still, is anybody ready to say Diego Valeri is definitely a worse player than he was before? I’m sure somebody is, but that judgement would be too hasty, given not only the early state of the season but the myriad issues surrounding Valeri on the field.

There is other information beyond 2018’s start that is informing what we’re seeing in this season’s individual performances, and in time, that information may prove prescient. But when it comes to issuing verdicts on players’ first two games this year, there is a huge, chicken-egg type problem, one that complicates the issues around our already limited sample.

How do we expect individuals to perform well when the team, universally, is also in trouble? That’s one of many questions Giovanni Savarese will be tasked with answering before the Timbers kick off in Dallas on Mar. 24 (12:30pm PT, Univision).

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