Through the looking glass, the Portland Timbers are the New England Revolution. They’re the team who, with a first-year coach, finds its season on the brink, their small losing streak having turning into a bonafide free fall. They’re on the outside looking in on a playoff race they’d been a part of most of the season, left holding onto the hope a new style the team has embraced will, with a little faith and confidence, come good.
The Timbers escaped that world with Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Toronto FC – a performance which, with the virtue of three points, cast the team’s former, four-game losing streak in a new light. Thanks to a convincing victory over the league’s defending champions, the new, five-game stretch looks as much misfortune as free fall. “You know, the underlying performances against Vancouver and Seattle weren’t that bad,” somebody can say, defensibly, with lopsided losses to D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City looking more like schedule challenges and, as head coach Giovanni Savarese has said, the team’s attempts to learn a more about itself.
The Revolution’s streak has gone on for too long to craft such convenient contexts. And the names opposite New England’s in each boxscore paint a more concerning picture. Home losses to the Philadelphia Union and LA Galaxy. Road defeats to Minnesota United and, again, the Philadelphia Union. Some results in the Revs’ slide are understandable, like their home draw to Seattle, or losing at a once-climbing D.C. United, but the team’s 3-3 draw at Orlando City SC on Aug. 4 gave the Lions their only point since mid-July. Almost every stop in New England’s eight-week slide has resulted in a bigger question mark.
For his part, first-year head coach Brad Friedel is drawing a line in the sand and maintaining the expectations he seeded back in February, when instilling an attitude of hard work and exertion seemed to be a disproportionate part of his program in Tucson, Arizona.
“We have to be brave on the ball,” the 82-time U.S. international told NBCSports Boston, this week. “It’s always talk. Talk’s talk, and you really find out about players when you haven’t won for a while.
“That’s something myself and the staff are going to change, here. The acceptance to losing, the mentality of losing, is not something I or my staff is used to. It’s not something I or my staff want. It’s not something I or my staff will accept.”
It’s a dangerous tone, one that creates a high-risk, high-reward scenario for the Revolution. Friedel was a great player, somebody many consider the best goalkeeper the U.S. has ever produced, but that individual excellence can foster undo expectations of others. New England wouldn’t have replaced their former head coach, Jay Heaps, last year if the organization didn’t want a different course, but amid the high physical demands of the preseason and a tactical approach which, through its often-intense pursuit of opponents, some obvious questions emerge.
Have the Revolution burned out? If so, Friedel’s unwavering expectations won’t help. Did the desire to make his team into one defined by their effort – one that would always be hard to play against – create a season where, come the two-thirds mark, New England would be burned out? In hindsight, that feels predictable, especially given the inexperience of a first-year head coach.
Sports teams don’t have the luxury of conducting the type of natural, side-by-side experiments you’d see in an academic setting. We can’t take the 2018 version of the Revolution and, reconstructing and managing the variables of February, find out what the team would be with a different set of decisions. The current slide could be the result of Friedel’s plans or merely the fate of a team which has only one Designated Player, hasn’t filled all its international spots, maintains one empty slot on its senior roster and three other holes among their squad’s reserve spots (all according to MLSsoccer.com). Friedel’s methods actually may be getting the most of a limited team, one which is still only four points shy of an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
But with the Timbers visiting Gillette Stadium on Saturday, having just avoided succumbing to a Revolution-esque free fall, it’s impossible not to compare the decisions of Portland’s first-year coach and ask where the teams’ paths diverged. Savarese has had his challenges, too – most obviously in March, amid the team’s five-game winless run, and recently, when the team dropped four in a row. Around those moments, Savarese’s tone rarely changed. In fact, each time, he took responsibility on himself while maintaining a bigger view of the season. But he also made changes, still asked more of his players and, when needed, altered his own approach. A first-year boss himself, Savarese adapted to Major League Soccer.
Beneath his public comments, Friedel may very well be doing the same, but the team’s eight-game slide, in which they’ve collected six losses, hints New England’s process has hit a critical moment. And in that moment, the new coach has become more entrenched in his approach.
“These last nine games, players will be definitely playing for contracts,” he said, this week. “And definitely, we’re going to find out who has that winning mentality and who doesn’t. If you don’t have the winning mentality, you’re going to have to go on to your next venture, and we’ll look for others.”
Saturday’s game is the perfect test for the Revolution, because detached from the team’s worrisome form, this is a game New England should win. The Timbers are on short rest, have endured a cross-country flight, are in the process of three games in seven days, and have to account for the league’s worst playing surface. This game has schedule loss written all over it.
If Portland can overcome that, they’ll have met one of the more difficult challenges of the Savarese era. And if the Revs can’t deliver three points, there is no telling how long their streak will go.