The Portland Timbers have been here, before. Giovanni Savarese’s Portland Timbers? Not so much.
For only the second time under the new manager’s watch, the Timbers are dealing with a two-game losing streak. The last time this happened, back in March, the team responded with a 10-1-7 run that vaulted them to second place in the Western Conference. Maybe losing games isn’t so bad, after all?
Maybe. But maybe there’s something else going on, here. At the beginning of the year, it was easy to see losses to the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls as symptomatic of a transition. The old coach was gone. The new coach had just started. Maybe plans needed time to take hold.
So, what’s the theory, now? Just two bad games? That’s how the Timbers will want to portray this run, a desire that makes Saturday’s game all the more important. Win at Sporting Kansas City (5:30pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS), and the team will have a result that calms the nerves, pushes back against any regression narrative, and reestablishes their place as a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.
Lose? Well, a three-game losing streak speaks for itself. Here is your KeyBank Scouting Report – three areas of focus ahead of Portland’s visit to Children’s Mercy Park:
1. Managing the miles
It’s not only two games in four days, the Timbers are dealing with, now. It’s three games in eight, two flights in between, with travel across six times zones. This road trip isn’t anything other MLS teams don’t have to deal with, too, but while you’re dealing with them, there are undeniable challenges. Travel, lost training time, and life away from home are the most renown of them.
That the team is dealing with a short turnaround, though, does prompt questions about the lineup. Even after being taken off early on Wednesday, is Diego Valeri ready for three games in just over a week? What about players like Samuel Armenteros, Diego Chara, or Sebastián Blanco? For some, the lack of rest won’t be a problem. For others, it will be a non-starter (no pun intended).
The last time Portland dealt with a stretch like this, only one field player, central defender Julio Cascante, played all 270 minutes over games at Los Angeles FC (twice) and versus the Montréal Impact. Now, two games into this stretch, all of Cascante, Chara, Larrys Mabiala, Alvas Powell, and Zarek Valentin have played the entire 180. Going into leg three, will Savarese have to change things up?
It’s not as simple as noting how many minutes people have played. Only the Timbers staff knows how much ground each player has covered. But fatigue, in general, is something the team will have to consider. Midway through the season, Portland has got to manage their miles.
2. Knowing what falling behind means
The Timbers’ forward situation is so uncertain, right now, we essentially devoted two items to it in Wednesday’s KeyBank Scouting Report. Sure, we disguised one as just addressing Armenteros’ health, but wasn’t part of the worry about Armenteros’ fitness born from the depth chart behind him?
Ninety minutes later, and it’s still unclear what the Timbers have beyond Armenteros when it comes to forward goals. Dairon Asprilla has proved valuable, but much of that value is tied to what he offers when you’re protecting a lead or need work without the ball. The other players competing for time – Tomás Conechny and Jeremy Ebobisse, on this trip – are still trying to claim place two on the forward depth chart.
What we saw on Wednesday, though, was an implication of that uncertainty. What happens when the Timbers fall behind? What tricks to they have at their disposal? With Fanendo Adi gone, who is there to give the team a goal-scoring alternative?
It’s something people have talked about since Adi’s departure – a cost Timbers management was fully aware of when they decided to accept FC Cincinnati’s offer. But until a new, productive attacker steps into Adi’s boots, the Timbers will continue enduring the costs, part of the reason it will hurt so much if the team gives up the first goal.
3. Curbing the momentum
Part of that potential hurt is the place Portland finds itself in after two losses. For the second time this season, the Timbers are dealing with back-to-back defeats, and although they stymied that pattern in March when they drew at FC Dallas, there’s still the danger that this stretch could grow into a legitimate run.
After all, how many MLS teams would go into Kansas City and expect a result? Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask, as every team should set those kinds of standards for themselves, but in terms of a more objective view, how many teams would we expect take an L at Children’s Mercy Park? Sporting have won six of 11 games there this year, took 10 of 17 last year, and are 36-9-17 at home since rejoining the Western Conference in 2015. For opposing teams, victories at Sporting KC are aberrations, not expectations.
Sporting’s home history, however, is not relevant to the Timbers. What is relevant is their need for a result. The team returns home next week and faces a winnable game at Providence Park against Seattle Sounders FC, but a world where they’re preparing amidst a three-straight losses is a harrowing thought. It’s a space the team his never been in under Giovanni Savarese, a space that would force the team to entertain a new set of doubts.
Perhaps that space could turn into a positive, providing an obstacle that would steel the Timbers for their season’s final months. But it’s clearly one the team wants to avoid; one that opens the door to more than just overcoming an obstacle.
On Saturday in Kansas City, Portland needs to curb their new momentum. Because that momentum is taking them farther from their goals.