It would be easy to look at the Portland Timbers’ record through four games (0-2-2) or the late, equalizing goal conceded Saturday to Chicago and find reasons for frustration, but that would be a narrow view, ignoring the progress the Timbers have made in their last two games. On the back of last week’s 1-1 draw against FC Dallas, Portland put in another positive performance, and although the team could have had more their 2-2 result, the underlying play showed improvement.
Saturday marked the first time this season the Timbers have scored twice in a game, with Diego Valeri’s first goal of the season preceding Sebastián Blanco’s third. When Valeri scored in the sixth minute, it was the first time this season Portland has led. In all, the Timbers would lead of 63 minutes at Toyota Park, a span that provided a pronounced silver lining to the team’s second consecutive draw.
“Last week we got the point, and we were very happy,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, after Saturday’s draw. “Today, we are disappointed, and that's a good sign.”
Disappointed because, when Brandon Vincent equalized in the 84th minute, Portland was so close to delivering Savarese’s first MLS victory. Disappointment could also be found in the nature of each goal, with Chicago star Bastian Schweinsteiger, each time, able control play and will the Fire to level ground. The team could have also been disappointed with the gilt-edge chance in the first half which saw a sprawling Chicago goalkeeper, Richard Sánchez, prevent what appeared to be a sure Blanco goal.
These are the type of disappointments that come from controlling a game, being ahead for much of the day, and crafting good chances. That the Timbers were even in those positions was a sign of progress.
“It's a good sign because we felt that we could have gotten more from this match,” Savarese said, “and I was proud of the effort of everyone on the field. The discipline but we also created more offensively today, which is a step forward to where we want to be."
It was a level of creation that showed how the Timbers were progressing in their new system. For the second straight game, Savarese deployed his team in a 4-3-2-1 formation, one that relied on Fanendo Adi, Valeri and Blanco in its attacking positions. Last week against Dallas, it took over a half for that trio to feel out the connections they’d need to threaten goal, something that came good for a second-half equalizer in Frisco.
This week, the trio threatened from the get-go, producing an early goal after Valeri forced a turnover. The threat forced Chicago head coach Veljko Paunović to, early in the game, switch his formation, moving from his team’s base 4-2-3-1 setup to a 3-5-2 that would keep numbers in defense.
The change only proved so effective, with the players Portland were able to throw forward providing the team with more options. Marco Farfan, returning to the starting lineup at left back, had his best match of the season, with his influence felt on Portland’s second goal. His ability to get forward provided needed width as the Timbers moved play from left to right, eventually finding an open Andrés Flores on the opposite flank for his cross to Blanco.
Blanco ended the night with a goal and an assist, giving him a part in all four Timbers goals this season. Despite his impressive night, he shared his head coach’s subdued tone.
“It was disappointing, because we lost two points,” he said. “We had a very good first half, but not the second. We lost the ball, and then we started defending more than we attacked.”
You can’t blame players and coaches for dwelling on what could have been. That the Timbers were so close to a true breakthrough made their tone more poignant. But that bitter taste should not overshadow the team’s step forward. For the first time since the season’s opening game, when Portland put in a second-half performance against the LA Galaxy, the Timbers showed some consistent creativity going forward. Now, the team appears to be improving on both sides of the ball.
Ultimately, Portland didn’t find the right balance to secure three points in Chicago, but ahead of the last game of their five-game, season-opening road trip, consecutive results have provided reason for hope.
“Right now, the team is getting confidence, and that's the best part for us,” Diego Chara explained. “Today, we got some points from Chicago, and we have a hard game against Orlando. I think game-by-game the team is looking better."