The Portland Timbers wrote another line in their history books last week; now, they get the chance to clear the slate and write the chapter anew.
With a win or draw on Saturday, Giovanni Savarese’s team will extend their unbeaten run to 16 games. Not only would that be the longest in Major League Soccer this season, but should the Timbers take a point in their second Cascadia Cup match of the season, they will eclipse the 15-game, team-record mark posted in 2013, during former head coach Caleb Porter’s first season with the club.
What is it about first seasons, for coaches, that seem so magical in Portland? That question is a little disingenuous, as it isn’t so much about coach’s first seasons as something else. After all, John Spencer went through the expansion gauntlet as he helped usher the club into MLS in 2011. There was title contention, then. Championship hopes were crushed beneath the realities of playoff expectations, a standard the team couldn’t meet in their first MLS season.
When Porter arrived from Akron in 2013, he found more success, but he was also aided by the arrivals of Diego Valeri, Will Johnson, Ryan Johnson, Michael Harrington and, midway through the previous season, Donovan Ricketts. The 2013 Timbers were, in a number of ways, a brand-new squad, one which allowed its new head coach to put his imprint on the club.
Look what Savarese’s been offered in his first season. Samuel Armenteros? Brand new. Andy Polo, who has established himself in midfield? Also, new. Julio Cascante in defense, Cristhian Paredes and Andrés Flores in the middle – Larrys Mabiala, who, like Ricketts five years ago, is completing his first full season with the new coach – have all helped usher in a new culture.
This will be the Vancouver Whitecaps’ first exposure to the new Timbers. As head coach Carl Robinson said from his team’s training on Thursday, “Gio’s come in and put his own stamp. They play totally different from what Caleb played, and the squad has changed.”
But, ultimately, the expectations aren’t so different. The Timbers finished first in the Western Conference in 2013 and, one month before Savarese took the Portland job, the Timbers had again finished atop the Western Conference. Now, only five points back of West-leading FC Dallas, Portland is making another play for the conference’s pole position.
Here are three keys for the season’s first visit from Vancouver, this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report:
1. The reintegration of Sebastián Blanco
There’s no Diego Chara-esque winning streak surrounding the absences of Sebastián Blanco, so it’s easy to move on to the next data point when he has to sit out. But amid all the justifiable qualms about the Timbers’ first 30 minutes against the Philadelphia Union, one small detail bears reiterating: One of the team’s best players was out.
Granted, Blanco isn’t the team’s only standout talent. Chara, obviously belongs on the list as does last year’s MLS Most Valuable Player, Valeri. Armenteros has had a stretch of dominance this season, and right now, right back Alvas Powell is enjoying the moment. Left back Zarek Valentin has performed among MLS’s best at his position, too. Add in the low-key excellence of Mabiala as well as, in goal, Jeff Attinella and … wow, I guess we hadn’t stopped and thought about it before, but the team is really getting a number of standout performances this season.
Blanco, however, might be at the top of the list. Maybe Chara is first on yours, and a couple of Timbers deserve a mention, too. But the second-year midfielder deserves consideration, because when it comes to connecting the deep parts of midfield to the rest of Portland’s attack, “Seba” has played the team’s most important role.
All season, we’ve been highlighting the Timbers’ depth, so it would be disingenuous to imply the team can’t overcome one player’s absence. As last week’s win implies, they certainly can, but Portland is undoubtedly different when a player of Blanco’s caliber is out. With the Argentine attacker coming back into the team, expect him to, again, be at the heart of how the team moves.
2. Emphasis on patience, mistake-free play
One of the issues the Timbers had over last Saturday’s first 30 minutes was the way Philadelphia set up. As Portland sought to lure the Union in and reply on the counter, the visitors sat back, kept two midfielders deep, and stayed true to the block they wanted to maintain in the middle of the field.
For those who have followed Carl Robinson’s managerial career since he ascended to the Whitecaps’ lead job in 2013, that might sound familiar, with last year’s two-leg, Western Conference semifinal against the Seattle Sounders serving as a prime example. Over two excruciating games, the Whitecaps kept playing directly to striker Fredy Montero, hoping a player who is decidedly not a target man could, while overmatches against Chad Marshall and Román Torres, find a moment of magic and eliminate the league’s defending-champion. Ultimately, that approach merely gave Seattle 180 minutes to break down their Cascadia rivals, and after a second leg on home turf that never saw Vancouver emerge from their shell, the Whitecaps’ home-field advantage proved worthless.
With a Canadian Championship game on Wednesday, Robinson will be committed to preserving his team’s CONCACAF Champions League hopes. That likely means a rotated first XI and, if history proves predictive, a conservative, opportunistic approach.
Much like last week against the Union, the Timbers will have to temper their aggression with patience. They’ll have to be opportunistic without compromising. They’ll have to be on the front foot, but not so much that they leave themselves exposed.
In soccer, that’s always the tight rope managers have to walk, though knowing what Robinson’s priorities are – and knowing how his team started last week’s match against Philadelphia – it will be interested into see how Savarese starts against the Whitecaps. Will last week’s first half-hour prove a learning experience, or merely something merely to move on from?
3. Zarek Valentin’s ongoing audition
The subtext of Jorge Villafaña’s return from Santos Laguna surrounds Valentin, who now faces questions around whether he can maintain the playing time he’s earned. But it wasn’t so long ago Valentin was facing identical questions, just born from other players’ competition, and from the second game of the season, the team’s first-choice left back has found himself in the starting lineup.
Valentin didn’t come into preseason a first-choice defender. On the left, that was Vytas’ job, and on the right, it belonged to Powell. Even Marco Farfan was seen by some as more likely to get playing time, especially after the academy product got the call at left back in week one. Valentin came on in that game, though, and ever since then, he’s been one of the brightest performers in this year’s squad.
Clearly, his place has come into question, just others’ have before, this season. Some, like Fanendo Adi, Jake Gleeson and Liam Ridgewell have lost ground in their battles; others, like Cascante, Lawrence Olum, and Valentin, himself, have made progress in theirs.
Now, the competition changes slightly for Valentin, but it’s still a competition. On Saturday, in his newest battle, he gets the chance to make his case first.