New game plan, mentality deliver Portland Timbers' first point of the season in draw versus Dallas

The Portland Timbers returned from their two-week layoff looking nothing like the team that collapsed against the New York Red Bulls. Instead, the team gave its most complete performance under new head coach Giovanni Savarese, overcoming an early goal from Roland Lamah and a late red card to Lawrence Olum to secure a 1-1 draw at FC Dallas.

“It’s important, away from home, to get points against a good team,” Savarese said, after the match. “It’s important for us, especially finishing the game with 10 players.”

It was also important, given where the Timbers stood two hours before. Coming into the game at the bottom of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference, Portland had yet to take a point under its new boss, going 0-2-0 with a minus-five goal difference after games against the LA Galaxy and New York.

Although most expected the team’s season-opening, five-match road trip to be difficult, the lopsided loss at Red Bull Arena defied those expectations. In response, Savarese instilled a new game plan Saturday, one his refocused squad executed admirably to get their season’s first result.

“I was pleased with the discipline that that players showed,” Savarese explained, “how they played united, and I think we had some good moments, also, offensively … From last match to this match, [it was] a big difference.”

Part of that difference was mentality, with the Timbers avoiding the same bad spells that undermined them in Carson and Harrison. Part of the difference was selection, with six of 11 spots changed from the team that started against the Red Bulls. And part of the difference was approach, with Savarese’s 4-3-2-1 formation giving the Timbers a new, unexpected look.

“I think we tried to surprise them with our formation, and at some points, we did it,” said midfielder Diego Valeri. “They found a goal and the game changed a little bit, but in the second half we played a much better game, until we were down to 10 men.”

Even after losing Olum, Portland continued to execute their game plan, showing enough life going forward to make you forget they were playing shorthanded.

Add in the Frisco, Texas, heat, something that forced the teams into hydration breaks 30 minutes into each half, and the Timbers had plenty of reasons to wilt. That they fought through for their result made the draw all the more valuable.

“It’s tough, because it was very hot …  But that’s when you see a team that wants to fight for each other …,” Savarese said. “They played disciplined, smart, and they knew when to run, what areas to cover, and that helped us a lot today, because everybody knew they had somebody covering their back.”

That sense of accountability was echoed by center back Bill Tuiloma, who made a successful MLS debut.

“All the players felt the rhythm and had the right mentality going into the game to defend for one another,” the New Zealand international said. “We went down to 10 men and we knew we had to protect the goal and each other.”

That mentality left Dallas with few good chances over the match’s final hour. Although the home side’s speed gave the Timbers problems early, Portland’s midfield, reinforced by numbers and the return of Diego Chara, protected the back line in a way it hadn’t over the season’s first matches. The disadvantages that hampered the fullbacks in games one and two never fell to Dallas’s wingers, Lamah and Michael Barrios. Lamah’s goal came after Portland lost a 50-50 battle at the edge of their defensive third, while Barrios was kept uncharacteristically quiet on the host’s right flank.

“After the goal, we tried to keep the ball and create more chances to score,” Chara said, describing the Timbers’ relative control of play over the game’s second half. “We were very smart trying to defend well, keep the ball and create something different in the game.”

It was a level-headedness the Timbers failed to show from whistle-to-whistle in either of their first two outings. But thanks to that new focus, Portland has its first point of the season.