One down. Three to go. The homestand that evens out the Portland Timbers’ schedule is finally here. Now, it’s time to take advantage of it.
As of last Saturday’s draw with the Montréal Impact, the Timbers have played only two more games on the road than at home, now having almost entirely made up the deficit they were handed with their season-opening, five-game road trip. At Providence Park for three more games on this homestand, still – starting with Saturday’s match against the Houston Dynamo (8pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS) – the Timbers can forget about nights in hotels, sacrificing training days for travel days, for a while, and focus on getting everything right: the tactics; the temperament; the table. This is the time when things should start coming together.
Saturday’s match is the first test of that theory. Last week, the team had only been in town for two days before facing Montréal, not giving anyone time to settle into their regular routines. With the team on the ground for over a week, though, there are no excuses. The full brunt of the team’s preparation should come to bear on the Dynamo.
Portland will need it, too. Houston suffered a setback on Wednesday in a 3-1 home loss to Philadelphia Union, but the team has otherwise been good this season. Though they sit eighth in the Western Conference, their plus-eight goal difference is one of the West’s better marks, with their Expected Goal difference (third-best in MLS) hinting Houston’s record is understating the quality of their underlying performance.
Perhaps most important to Saturday’s game, though, is how Portland is going to meet the Dynamo’s challenge. Here are three areas of note – this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report:
1. The reintegration of Chara
We dove into it on Monday, all the inconsistencies entailed in any assumption that the Timbers are really a 0-10-8-level team without Diego Chara. Unfortunately, over their last 18 games, that’s what the Timbers are – there are just a lot of analytical inconsistencies wrapped up in those numbers.
Thankfully, Portland doesn’t have to deal with those inconsistencies this weekend. Coming off a one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation, the Timbers’ best midfielder will be back in the lineup. Where, exactly, he comes back in, though, is the question.
Chara has spent most of his Timbers career as the team’s deepest-lying midfielder, but with Lawrence Olum getting more time in Giovanni Savarese’s XIs, we’ve seen the Colombian play higher up more often than before.
With a deep squad, Chara’s flexibility gives his coach some valuable options, leaving Savarese to decide where Chara’s disruptive powers are best employed: In front of the defense, or higher up the field. Where that deployment happens will provide a hint as to where Savarese thinks Houston is most dangerous … or vulnerable.
2. More, proactive changes
Beyond Chara, we have reason to think there’ll be more changes; namely, last week’s first half against Montreal.
When the Timbers have played well, Savarese has typically been restrained, only tweaking his team as needed for the next obstacle. When the team has faltered, his changes seek solutions, and while Portland didn’t fall to Montréal last Saturday, there was the distinct feeling amidst the squad that the team had come up short.
“The first half, we didn’t bring the energy we needed to bring,” Savarese said, then. “We were not organized the way we usually are. We allowed two goals on plays that, usually, we don’t allow those plays to happen.”
The team improved in the second half, and over the match’s last half hour, we saw some of the team’s most imposing attacking of the season. What from that successful spell can Savarese apply at kickoff against Houston, and how will that change the XI who take the field?
3. The need for three
Because to be certain, the draws are getting old. That’s not to say the team has faltered, or that any single game has been especially bad, but as Sebastián Blanco said after the Montréal result, those were points dropped. And with three home games starring at Portland in the schedule, it’s time to start upping the win total.
Look at it like this: When you look at the Western Conference standings, you see Portland rests in fifth place, but the entire reason for that relatively low spot is the games played column. Every team around the Timbers has played three or four more games thus far this season. Portland has a great chance to leapfrog the teams above them during this homestand, but they need three points instead of one.
Blanco may have been speaking for himself last Saturday, but he’s not the only Timber that knows the team needs to win games. But knowing and doing are two entirely different things. The team has trained all week knowing it needs to win. On Saturday, they need to do it.