If there’s an early theme emerging in the Portland Timbers’ 2018 campaign, it’s one of change, not only in the big-picture issues like coaching and roster but also in the way the team is approaching every contest. From opening kick in Los Angeles on March 4 against the LA Galaxy to Sunday’s win at home against New York City FC, head coach Giovanni Savarese has deployed three different shapes, a seemingly constant evolution of styles, and an arc of changing results.
We’ve alluded to it before, in this space, but on the heels of another new formation, one that produced the team’s best result of the season, it’s probably worth reframing the question: What, exactly, do we know about Giovanni Savarese’s approach?
Let’s walk through the arc. When Savarese was brought to Portland, rumblings from back east cast him as a proactive but versatile coach who enjoyed tailoring his New York Cosmos to their opponents while sticking to some core principles. In his first months with the Timbers, those core principles were thought to be high defensive lines, high pressing, quick play but also a willingness to set the game’s tempo. After the Timbers started 0-2-0, those buzzwords were muted, and a new, more flexible approach emerged.
On Sunday, that flexibility was showcased again, with the team yielding 74.4 percent of the match’s possession during a 3-0 win over New York City FC. Rightly, people are lauding Savarese for his plan, one that recognized NYCFC’s skill on the ball but, at times, used that against them. Cast against those preseason Tucson moments were Savarese was explaining high lines and ambitious pressing, though, and you get a profound contrast. Even going back one week presents a picture of change, with the strides on display against Minnesota United FC seemingly abandoned as, after that 3-2 win, the Timbers drastically altered their approach.
"We have to have progression, but we also have to see where the guys start progressing," Savarese said, before the Minnesota match, when asked about how he's managing the squad. It's an answer the new Timbers boss has given, in some form, since he began training in late January. Perform well in training? Fit stylistically against our next opponent? Last week's plan aside, you could find yourself on the field.
"I believe in all the guys that we have, but also every week we’ll see in the practices who are the best players for that particular match," Savarese has constantly confirmed.
In the most perfunctory ways, the idea of Portland's constant flux is true. The Timbers have been changing how they play. To deny that would do a disservice to the plans and tough decisions Savarese and his staff have had to make. But there are some underlying principles that have remained the same since day one, and while concepts like high lines have proven more mutable than we assumed, their wane makes the ideas that have survived even more notable.
Perhaps the most prominent of those ideas is the concept of change, itself. From his first days in Portland, Savarese espoused a management style which, from those who followed the Cosmos, he practiced in the NASL. Savarese likes a bigger squad. He wants more players, rather than less, to be involved. He not only wants it to promote in-week competition in training but he wants to embrace it, which is why, even after the team’s first victory of the season, we saw significant changes to his starting XI.
Andrés Flores’ spot in Sunday’s XI at the expense of Andy Polo looks like a trademark Savarese move. While Polo had played well of late, the combination of matchup and training ground performance meant that Florés, against one of MLS’ toughest opponents, made his second league start. And Polo still came in late to help see the game out.
"First of all, we always have to improve on the things we need to improve, and fix some things," Savarese said before the draw against FC Dallas, another response that's as applicable after this season's latest game as it would be following the first. "And second, see how we can hurt the team that we’re playing against, and what other things we can do in order to find good moments in this match coming up ..."
Even then, a month ago, the bottom line was the same, one which explains why the Timbers' boss has been so willing to tailor his approach.
Now, five games later, Savarese has already played 22 different players this season. Nineteen of those have made a starting XI. Only three teams in MLS have seen more players take the field, and two of those teams (the New York Red Bulls and Toronto) have done so because of CONCACAF Champions League. Throughout the entirety of last season, Portland only played 25 players, and three of those players (Victor Arboleda, Jack Barmby, Harold Hanson) never made a start.
|Teams||Players played||Starters used|
|New York Red Bulls*||23||22|
|Minnesota United FC||22||20|
|Seattle Sounders FC*||22||20|
|Real Salt Lake||22||19|
* = CCL participants
The other consistent part of Savarese’s approach is the way the team attacks. From the early moments of training camp, the Timbers’ new boss was intent on getting his team to play fast. Drill after drill was designed to not only get players moving the ball quicker but also implored them to be urgent in how they sought space. The side-to-side play that team often used in the past, something that fit with previous personnel, was being trained out of the group. Although Portland had success on the counter attack before (no more so than at the end of its 2015 title-winning season), it has rarely been part of the team’s identity. Going forward, Savarese wanted his team to be able to play fast by default.
Perhaps paradoxically, that principle was most evident on Sunday, when Savarese was content with Portland playing without the ball. When the team won possession, though, the team’s new principles were evident, as early as the fourth minute on this chance from Sebastián Blanco:
Perhaps that’s a bad example, as Blanco’s counter wasn’t something the team would have shied away in previous seasons, but even in previous games, where the team’s setup made it more reliant on the Blanco-Diego Valeri-Fanendo Adi trio, the speed of play was a constant. Consider how Blanco fought through a tackle here, against Chicago, to set up this Valeri opener:
Beyond formations or the type of tactics which, within games, can change with an opponents’ style, these are characteristics that become indelible. “That the Timbers will use their whole squad,” is something you can imagine an opposing coach saying. “They’re capable of changing their approach.”
If an opponent is asked about how Portland attacks, you can already hear the response. “They have a lot of talented players, and they’ll hit hard. They can score goals even when they’re not trying to keep the ball.”
They can, in other words, be difficult team to figure out. That may be Savarese’s whole point. When you hear sports axioms like "every game is a final" professed as if dogma, it usually comes from this mindset: this game is important. While true with Savarese, it also emphasizes that there is no one, unchanging way a team does anything in any given match; and when it comes to the next match, that team is going to use almost every tool at its disposal.
Having shown an ability to go out and cultivate a deep roster, the Timbers would be selling themselves short if they settled on a single approach. Balancing the change that entails with some basic, unchanging principles is how Savarese might get the most out of his first MLS squad.