Week one of the 2018 Major League Soccer season arrived with an optimism that, for the Portland Timbers, quickly faded into irrelevance. Such was the loss in Carson, California, to open the season, and such was the defeat the following week on the road against the New York Red Bulls. The 0-2-0 start the LA Galaxy sparked made all the high-pressing, high-line talk of Arizona’s preseason seem like a forest-for-the-trees whiff. Had we forgot to consider whether the Timbers were actually good?
Two months later, oh, how the world has changed. When the Galaxy arrive in Portland for Saturday’s rematch (2pm PT, ESPN2), they’ll be facing a Timbers team that’s won six games in a row, has the third-best points-per-game rate in the Western Conference and, in terms of their schedule, still has three games to make up at home. The Timbers have posted statement wins against New York City FC and Los Angeles FC since they last saw the Galaxy, while the Galaxy have, well, taken a slightly different course.
“Our intensity, our desire, our drive, our determination in the first 15, 20 minutes of the game was not good,” Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid said, mid-week, his team having just dropped a not-as-close-as-the-score-looks, 3-2 result to visiting FC Dallas. The Galaxy were down 3-0 at home by the 66th minute, making up part of the deficit’s margin after Dallas went down to 10 men. It was, as Mark Parsons would say, a bad night at the office.
Though the Galaxy have their own win over LAFC this season – a 4-3, comeback victory that may be MLS’ game of the year, to date – they’ve also lost seven times since their meeting with Portland, the second-highest total in MLS. They’ve allowed 21 goals in those 12 games, have a minus-five goal difference, and rest below the playoff line in the Western Conference. Since the Timbers last lost a game (April 8, versus Orlando City SC), the Galaxy have five losses, have given up 14 goals, and have not taken a point from a team that’s currently on track for the postseason.
At least, that’s one way to look at it. Another is that, before Wednesday’s loss, the five-time champions had won two in a row. They’d kept consecutive clean sheets and, despite star striker Zlatan Ibrahimović playing only 41 minutes across those matches, were able to grind out consecutive 1-0 wins. Yes, those wins came against struggling sides – Montreal and San Jose – but the Timbers have their own 1-0 win over the Earthquakes during their six-game run. When it comes to points in Major League Soccer, beggars need not be choosers.
Those results leave the Galaxy in a situation not unlike many MLS teams this early in the season. They’re searching for what they are. With 13 new players on the roster, that identity problem is not unexpected, and before the season, few expected last year’s last-place finishers to be instant MLS Cup contenders. Still, with Ibrahimović arriving in late March and perhaps the team’s most important player, Jonathan dos Santos, gone until Mexico’s out of the World Cup, it’s unclear when the Galaxy’s identity can take hold.
Even in that state, though, the Galaxy remain a dangerous team. The Timbers were reminded of that on March 4. LA may be without dos Santos, his brother (Giovani) and striker Ola Kamara this weekend, but they will still have an international-caliber deep midfield in Perry Kitchen and Sebastian Lletget. Romain Alessandrini can be one of the most productive attacking midfielders in the league, while Emmanuel Boateng’s speed on the wing was enough to crack Portland’s defense in week one. And, of course, there’s Ibrahimović, whose five goals and three assists in only 618 minutes project him as an as-advertised, dominant arrival.
“They’re starting to understand, a little bit more, how they want to play,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said in his weekly press conference. “It’s not easy when you have so many players that are talented, but now you have to find a way to make them work together, and what kind of system would be ideal for those players to play.
“They’ve been exploring. They’ve been trying. I think they’re getting to a confidence level, now, that they’re trying to understand exactly who they are.”
As the LA Times’ Kevin Baxter pointed out, after LA’s mid-week loss, the team is actually in a worse place than it was at this time a year ago, two months before they fired head coach Curt Onalfo. Since that 5-5-3 start, the Galaxy have gone 8-20-6 (7-15-5 under Schmid), a record that would tie for MLS’ worst single-season mark since 2014. Their recent two-game winning streak may have buoyed this year’s totals, but the Galaxy’s bigger picture shows a struggling team still trying to engineer a turnaround.
In that way, the Timbers are in the same place as they were before their game against Colorado. And San Jose. And Minnesota, before. The names may be bigger, and the opponent’s history may be richer, but in terms of Saturday’s obstacle, the Galaxy are a team Portland have the ability to defeat.
“In MLS, there is no easy game,” Savarese said, this week, but against certain teams, even in MLS, you should be expected to win at home.