KBSR, Timbers @ Loons, 9.22.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

KeyBank Scouting Report | Managing congestion, defensive choices and turning pressure into production key versus Minnesota

Minnesota United FC may always have a special place in Giovanni Savarese’s career; and, in turn, this current era of Portland Timbers soccer.

On April 14, a 3-2 win over the Loons at Providence Park gave Savarese the first victory of his Major League Soccer coaching tenure, one that snapped a five-game winless stretch to open the 2018 season. It was also the first home game of the campaign, a campaign which started with a construction-forced road trip that ended with three longtime Timbers – Alvas Powell, Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi – pushing the team into the win column.

That’s where Portland returned on Wednesday, delivering another 3-2 win, albeit over Columbus Crew SC. But as the team travels to face Minnesota for the second and final time this season, there’s an expectation of more. The playoffs are right around the corner, and while the Timbers are seven points to the good in their postseason chase, being ready to meet their season’s final challenges is a different bar.

Saturday is Portland’s next chance to develop their postseason form. Here is this weekend’s KeyBank Scouting Report – three areas of focus as the Timbers visit Minnesota on Saturday (5pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS):

1. The backend of something gnarly

The Timbers aren’t unique in having to deal with these stretches. Unfortunately, every team is handed a series of three-in-eight, three games-in-seven days-type scenarios come this point of the calendar. Perhaps that will change in time, but as of now, late summer will always present a brutal stretch where surviving and thriving are at loggerheads until the playoff picture comes into focus.

This Saturday represents a confluence of those worlds, for the Timbers. The playoff picture is in focus, given there are only five matches left in Portland’s regular season, meaning the balance between surviving and thriving is about to come to a head. Either you believe in yourselves or you don’t. You can deliver a result under adverse circumstances or you can’t. There’s no shame in being a team that can’t – that’s why these stretches are considered so gnarly, after all – but If you’re intent on forming a championship mentality, one that is defined by being able to overcome the myriad unpredictable obstacles that surface over a season, you have to be able to get three points in situations like Saturday's.

Get three points every time? No, not necessarily, but coming off last weekend’s performance in Houston, the Timbers have something to prove. Maybe they don’t have to prove that to anybody but their fans and themselves – because ultimately, it doesn’t matter what people outside the organization think of your potential. But after what happened at BBVA Compass Stadium, the team will need to prove to themselves that they’re capable.

2. Ridgewell, still in view

This may be the most straight-forward KeyBank Scouting Report section ever, because we already covered everything in this week’s Inside PTFC. The context has changed, a little – the Timbers did concede two goals on Wednesday – but the underlying logic feels the same. The team is different when Liam Ridgewell plays and, since March, Liam Ridgewell hasn’t played on the road. Will he play on Saturday in Minnesota? That’s up to Giovanni Savarese, but if he doesn’t, Portland has to find a way to mitigate Ridgewell’s absence.

On Wednesday, Columbus found a way to score twice on a defense that featured Ridgewell, the first time any team has done so since March. Portland needs to figure out why, but they also need to acknowledge the broader record, one that shows the team is better when Ridgewell plays.

Conceding only 10 times in 10 games when the veteran defender is active this season (and only four times in Ridgewell’s last eight appearances), Portland’s seen the best version of its defense. And it has Liam Ridgewell. Now, with Ridgewell not featuring away from home since week two, it’s time for the team to work the problem.

3. Pressure with better production

Portland endured one of their most dispiriting spells of the season over Wednesday’s first 18 minutes, but with David Guzmán’s breakthrough goal, the team changed its course and played a relatively convincing final 72. There were still a number of things the Timbers need to improve on, but in their response to the Crew’s opener and the way they were able to dictate play over most of the match, they gave what, under the predominant range of circumstances in MLS, should be considered a fine performance.

Of course, the team needed a Gastón Sauro backpass for Andy Polo to score their second goal. And the third score, the game’s winner, was a deflection off Crew defender Lalas Abubakar. Portland deserves credit for the pressure that led to those two goals, but in the way they finished, those weren’t goals teams can rely on producing game in, game out.

That may the most-obvious way Portland can improve on Wednesday. The defense has been inconsistent, but at its best, it’s capable of shutting other teams down. And given a game’s tactics, Portland is capable of dictating how match plays out. But throughout the season, the Timbers have been unable to guarantee that final element – the part that can take that 72 minutes of control and, on a regular basis, put games out of reach.

Saturday is another chance to improve on that element, one that could move the team beyond merely playing the best in the league close. The way for the Timbers to reach that next level is for the team’s attack to grow.