The Portland Timbers reversed their course on Wednesday night. Now it’s time to test that momentum.
Snapping the four-game losing streak they carried out of Sunday’s loss to the Seattle Sounders, Portland produced one of their most convincing performances of the summer mid-week, with goals from Diego Chara and David Guzmán delivering a 2-0 victory over Toronto FC and vaulting the team back above the Western Conference’s playoff line. One reward for that win, though, is a quick turnaround before their next game, with the New England Revolution awaiting Saturday at Gillette Stadium (4:30pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS).
New England hasn’t won since June 30, going 0-6-2 while falling outside the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. But assuming too much from that record would have outsiders overlook the magnitude of the Timbers’ challenge. After all, this is a road game on a short turnaround, and in a league designed to give every team a chance to compete, that’s a formula for disappointment away from home.
The Timbers were aware of this stretch’s challenges, though. “We knew about that,” Diego Valeri said, when asked about the schedule. “There’s probably a part of [every] season where you have to play three games in a week … everyone has to be ready, and I think the team is ready.”
Prove ready, and the Timbers can rekindle some of the form that fueled their 15-match unbeaten run. Slip, and Portland will get another reminder of the realities of the road.
Here is this match’s KeyBank Scouting Report – three areas of focus as Portland faces the Revolution:
1. Balancing the demands
The obvious angle heading into Saturday’s game is the travel, one that’s compounded by the Timbers’ short turnaround from Wednesday’s win and the less-forgiving, NFL-level turf at New England’s Gillette Stadium.
Normally, an MLS team has roughly a week to prepare between games, but ahead of their meeting with the Revolution, the Timbers have had only two days, one of which was spent flying across a continent and losing three hours on the clock. It’s not a completely foreign situation for the team – three of Portland’s last five games have been played on short rest – but the travel, time change and surface complicate this particular challenge.
During the team’s other three-games-in-a-week stretch this month – the losses to Vancouver (home), D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City (both road) – theories surfaced about how Giovanni Savarese should have managed his squad, and in the wake of those losses, the Timbers boss took responsibility for “trying things” with his group. But one factor that wasn’t mentioned enough was the pure, in the moment, health of the players. What was the biometric data, training staff and individual medical histories telling Timbers’ coaches about each player’s ability to manage short turnarounds? General theories about how lineups should be rotated are nice, but how do they apply to each starter’s history and workloads?
That’s the main challenge facing Portland coaches this week, and in Wednesday’s selection for Toronto FC, we already saw considerations play out. Some players people might have expected to rest were able to play. Others outsiders might have bet would be in the starting XI were rotated out of the team.
As with all medical information, there’s only so much the public can know, but behind the scenes, it all impacts which 18 will dress come Saturday in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
2. Building on goals
Beyond the three points Portland collected against Toronto – and beyond the happiness of Sebastián Blanco’s daughter’s birthday; the reveal of Diego Chara and his wife’s new, expected child; and the returns of Jorge Villafaña and Lucas Melano – Wednesday’s biggest takeaway was the attack’s break through.
After controlling Sunday’s game against the Seattle Sounders but being kept off the scoresheet, doubts about the attack’s potency followed the Timbers into Wednesday’s game, and after a scoreless first half that felt far too reminiscent of the team’s derby loss, Portland appeared to have few solutions. But in the way the team converted in the 64th minute against Toronto, the 21,144 at Providence Park were given reason to believe: believe Sunday’s misses were truly close calls; believe that progress was actually possible.
The goal we saw on Wednesday was exactly the type of movement the team has been working on, one that will become more necessary if teams keep devoting disproportionate attention to Samuel Armenteros, Diego Valeri, and Blanco. Portland has to punish teams for doing that. They have to be able to let their focal points pull players out of position and, in their execution, give teammates easy goals. Else, the Timbers will never incentive opponents to change their approach.
Saturday’s game against New England comes with a number of physical challenges, but particularly when the Timbers are building play from their defensive end, it could offer some stylistic advantages, too. For much of the year, the Revolution have made their name on pressuring opponents all over the field, trying to push them out of what they like to do most. In the past, and particularly on the road, the Timbers have been able to take advantage of this, using their skill on the ball and ability to build on the counterattack to thwart their hosts’ aggression.
If Portland can combine that past success with the lessons learned from games against Seattle and Toronto, they will have a formula for success . Whether tired legs allow them to execute is a separate issue, but health permitting, there’s reason to think the Timbers’ attack can build on Wednesday’s result.
3. Righting the road form
Between March 10 and Aug. 18, the Timbers lost one MLS match on the road, a 3-2 defeat at Orlando City SC which, euphemistically, we can call “enhanced by referee discretion.” In that span, Portland went 3-1-4 away from Providence Park, a spell that included the club’s first ever MLS regular season win at CenturyLink Field.
The Timbers’ most recent road trip, though, quickly pushed that spell to the back of fans’ memories. Two games, two losses, and a 7-1 combined goal margin at D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City reminded Portland what life is supposed to be like on the road. Perhaps those results were worse than most teams would expect, but they were still reminders that away games are usually hard.
Saturday is a chance to find a middle ground. It would be unrealistic to expect the Timbers to maintain the 13-points-in-eight-games form they forged on the road during their highest moments, but a minus-six goal difference over 180 minutes is equally unrealistic, if not more so.
Against New England, Portland should be vastly improved on those D.C. and Sporting results; and, if the Revolution’s form holds, that may be enough to secure a result.