Giovanni Savarese, playoffs, 11.16.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

MLS Cup Playoffs | Confident in the plan: A behind-the-scenes look at how the Portland Timbers handled a busy schedule to make the Western Conference Championship

The light from the dressing room’s projector stretched from the cabinet above David Guzmán’s locker, over three leather couches and onto a screen pulled down from the ceiling in the middle of the room. In the shadows of the otherwise dark space was a ring of black leather chairs, a series of rectangular storage spaces built into the walls, and, on plaques that formed the room’s trim, the names of the 30 Portland Timbers who amassed the club’s 2018 squad.

The place is a player’s haven on game days, but the rest of the week, it sits inert, with the squad’s time concentrated at the adidas Timbers Training Center in Beaverton. Shower shoes, warm up uniforms and spare shin guards line the silent lockers, neglected, amid stacks of log slices marking memories of goals and shutouts.

Within the locker room’s large, empty space that fills with visitors during postgame media availability sits Giovanni Savarese, the Portland Timbers’ head coach, and his technical staff. Just down the hall from the coaches’ offices, the dressing area has been sequestered for the group’s final film session of the week, where they’ll review the “scout” they show the squad the day before a match. For this scout, the group is preparing final plans for Seattle Sounders FC and the second leg of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals.

“Miles, this is where you usually talk,” Shannon Murray, the team video analyst who’s leading the session, says to one of Savarese’s other assistants as he switches slides. Murray is sitting against the armrest of one of the room’s three leather couches, arranged end-to-end through the length of the space, across the front of the screen. Savarese has his own, just slightly center-right of the projection, while Miles Joseph, the Timbers’ newest assistant, shares the final couch with another staffer, Carlos Llamosa. Only goalkeeper coach Guillermo Valencia, rounding out the crew, demurs from the front-row seats, electing to sit on a chair in front of Diego Chara’s locker.

“No, Polo should come for that ball,” Valencia says, later, as one of Murray’s clips highlights how a Timbers player, winger Andy Polo, reacts to some Sounders pattern play from the first leg – a match that Portland won 2-1 at home giving them a goal aggregate advantage heading into the final leg in Seattle.

Llamosa agrees. “And if he comes for it, he has to keep the pass from going there,” the former U.S. international says, noting an area of the field the staff knows will be crucial. Murray and Joseph, though, have identified a different spot in the defense, one Polo’s movement would expose. “No, he’s fine doing that,” Savarese offers, while noting if he does, a Portland teammate has to respond, and “come cover the space.”

These exchanges have gone on for the last two hours, ever since the group assembled to go over final observations before reviewing the scout. Beginning in Savarese’s office and then migrating to the locker room, the Tuesday night meeting will be the last major strategy session before delivering instructions to the squad. Roughly 19 hours later, the staff will be back in Beaverton, in the training center’s film room, going over shapes, movements, set piece attacking and, when defending, the players’ marking assignments.

Then, the hard work will be done. There will be more meetings, over coffee and meals, to make sure each detail is covered. But the studying, the breakdowns, the planning and implementation will be finished within the next 24 hours. All that will be left is the biggest game of the season, and the end of a path the staff, with a difficult decision, set the team down two weeks before.

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Making the playoffs was always going to be the benchmark goal in Portland’s first season under Savarese, a goal that was impossible to discern in the wake of the Timbers’ 3-0 regular-season win over Real Salt Lake on Oct. 21. The victory ensured that, for the first time in the club’s Major League Soccer history, the team would be returning to a second successive postseason, but other results around the Western Conference were forcing an immediate decision. Any relief over a goal achieved had been quickly usurped by the need to look forward.

Sitting in fifth place, needing to jump three spots on the final weekend to get a first-round bye, the Timbers had to accept that the playoffs’ Knockout Round, and the short, three-day turnaround that it entailed, was their likely fate, but even moving up to fourth or third in the conference – thus ensuring the team would at least play that match at home – was coming with an uncomfortable tradeoff. Playing a full-strength lineup in Vancouver on the Sunday before the Knockout Round – going for it, in terms of trying to earn that round’s home game – meant the team’s 11 first-choice players could, depending on how the bracket broke, have to play four games in 12 days to reach the league’s final four.

Just hours after the RSL win, Timbers management was dealing with that reality. Perhaps a veteran core that had struggled during the regular season to cope with short rest would, come the do-or-die part of the schedule, reach an unforeseen level. But that wasn’t something the technical staff could bet on. So as players rested and recovered the following day, and coaches and employees prepared for the squad’s full Tuesday return, the organization was coming to grips with having to rotate the team in Vancouver.

It wasn’t a decision that was taken lightly. Not doing everything possible to get a home game could be a difficult sell to fans, especially if a road game in the Knockout Round ended the team’s season. Guaranteed sellouts at Providence Park also come with a certain level of income, as well as a competitive edge in the game, itself. To forgo those benefits and risk not having another home game in 2018 was a decision that not only, eventually, would have to be sold to fans but also impacted the rest of the organization.

In both regards, it wasn’t a difficult sell. The schedule made it easy. One team Portland was chasing, fourth-placed FC Dallas, was visiting the Colorado Rapids, a team sitting next to last in the conference. Dallas was struggling significantly, playing like the team every Western Conference foe wanted to draw, but the odds of their woes continuing against the Rapids felt slim. Seattle, on the other hand, was the hottest team in Major League Soccer, and any hopes the conference’s then third-place team would stumble faded when realizing they’d be hosting MLS’ worst team, the San Jose Earthquakes. Though the Timbers’ depth meant even a rotated team would be able to compete with Whitecaps FC, a victory was no guarantee of climbing the standings.

Come Tuesday, the Timbers’ squad was set on two subtly different courses. For half of the group, life proceeded as normal, with victory over the next opponent remaining in focus. That the key names within the group had changed from the Valeris and Charas of the locker room to Floreses and Paredeses almost invigorated the squad, giving the players that would be preserved -- those targeting the inevitable mid-week followup ­– a chance to show their support. For most of the season, players like Dairon Asprilla and Lawrence Olum had been part-time starters, part-time super subs. The final game of the season would give them a chance to fully step into a starring role.

Diego Valeri wouldn’t even make the day’s 18-man team. Nor would Diego Chara. Nor Liam Ridgewell. Attacking starters Sebastián Blanco, Jeremy Ebobisse and Polo were on the bench to throw on, should results in Colorado and Seattle start breaking the Timbers’ way. But as Portland prepared for their finale at BC Place, another game had become their primary goal. Once the playoffs were clinched, preparing for playoffs -- not the 34th game of the regular season -- was priority number one.

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“I’m going to stop it here and say, ‘This is why we want you to defend this way.’”

It’s the perfect clip: one that showed effort and reward; one that Murray scours for during his days of breaking down film. Over the course of the season, the Timbers have settled into a style of play – that place where a team’s shape and tactics meet the abilities of a squad. With the last part of the season, that’s meant a 4-2-3-1 formation, one that requires Ebobisse and Valeri to lead the defensive effort from the top.

The span Murray has clipped, roughly 12 to 15 seconds of play from the Timbers’ conference semifinal opener against the Sounders, resulted in the day’s game-winning goal, but it began off a Sounders goal kick. Reacting as they’d been instructed in the face of Seattle’s predicted moves, Portland turned the Sounders over and quickly transitioned into their attacking zone. A great finish by Blanco sealed the team’s 2-1 triumph.

“It’s exactly what we want them to do,” Savarese says, though Murray quickly responds:

“Now the next three (clips), we don’t get it right.”

They’re quicker examples, because the mistakes come quickly. Not forcing play in the right direction. Not recognizing a passing lane and dropping into space. Following the ball instead of the man in an area the Timbers know is vulnerable. And the times the defending did work in the clips, the transition into attack was missing.

“That’s the incentive piece,” Joseph says after Murray notes where a broken-off run could have led to goal.

As much as the video Murray’s preparing is to scout the Timbers’ next opponent, it’s also to scout themselves. Coming off a one-goal victory over Seattle, Portland won’t make major changes for leg two. They’ll respond to things the Sounders did well and account for new scenarios, but at their core, their principles won’t change. Despite the result, though, how they implement those principles can still be improved.

“We have to concede that space,” Savarese says, talking about a particularly effective Seattle tactic. He has identified Sounders playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro’s movement as a particular problem, meaning the Timbers have to match his effort, and cleverness. “We have to choose wisely where we try to stop him; else, force the ball away.”

In the postseason, this is where coaching staffs prove themselves. Before the campaign’s final months, there’s a balance between qualifying for the playoffs and building toward your best selves, once the new tournament comes around. In his first year managing a new squad, Savarese had to sacrifice points, at various places during the season, to prepare for that long-term goal. Now, in the season’s ultimate moments, Savarese and staff need only fine tune the machine they’ve built. From the players, it was no longer a matter of developing new skills. It’s about using the skills they’d harnessed.

This is why the Timbers are confident. From the moment they decided to rotate for Vancouver, a calm settled within the group, as if the squad had been given license to ignore a specter that’d loomed for too long. The prospect for going all out in Vancouver, then the Knockout Round, then two semifinal matches, would never arrive. We’re still going to try and beat the Whitecaps, the message said, but we’re also going to prepare for our ultimate goal. And since our preparation begins early, now, we know we’re giving ourselves every opportunity to thrive in the playoffs.

One day before Portland left for Seattle, the coaching staff was confident, too. The prospect of Seattle building on their away goal? Or the strength of a team that had won 14 of their previous 17 matches? They were never in focus. All Savarese and Co. saw was the potential in their team’s execution. And within the scout, they saw a team ready to advance another round.

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The steel door of the BC Place garage opened, and a reminder of where the Timbers were flooded in. Portland has been cold, too, but Vancouver’s fall had a bite that waits until winter to venture south. It was only 4:30 p.m., and if this were a day that tried to fight the overwhelming grey, the sun would still be out. But the last day of the Major League Soccer campaign didn’t offer that resistance; nor, for the two hours the match would occupy on the clock, would that fight matter. The Timbers and Whitecaps would finish their season indoors.

It was less of a soccer game than a celebration. For the preceding four years, Alphonso Davies had grown in front of Vancouver’s eyes, with an electrifying emergence that led to a potentially $22 million sale. Before his departure to Germany, where he would join the country’s most successful club (Bayern Munich), Davies enjoyed a final bow, scoring twice against the Timbers to send them, with defeat, home.

The early-evening weather would have cemented the defeat’s impact, were the Timbers exposed to it. Instead, settled onto a bus destined for Vancouver’s airport, the players sat, behind rows of coaches, executives, and the staffers along to document the end of the season. Thirty minutes later, the team would be at their destination, boarding a charter flight that marked the divide between where the regular season passed and the postseason had come. And an hour later, the team would be back in Portland.

The quick return would prove needed, given how the postseason matchups turned out. FC Dallas’ surprise loss in Colorado meant that instead of staying on the West Coast and taking a mid-week trip to Los Angeles FC (who’d lost at Sporting Kansas City), the Timbers would have to travel over two times zones for their playoff opener in Texas. Worse, instead of being given a Thursday night game, allowing an extra day for preparation and travel, Portland would have to be in Frisco, ready to play on Wednesday. When the team boarded their Monday afternoon flight to Dallas, they had only been on the ground in Portland for 18 hours.

From the outside, the scheduling didn’t make sense, though inside the team, it didn’t matter. Instead, some felt the unfortunate turnaround gave the Timbers an advantage. FC Dallas elected to start their full team at altitude in Colorado, hoping to play their way out of the Knockout Round. When the risk backfired, the team was forced into a quick regroup ahead of Wednesday’s must-win at home. Portland, on the other hand, had been ramping their starters up for the Knockout Round over a 10-day stretch. Even with three flights in that time, the Timbers were confident their foresight would pay off.

That confidence was evident in the team’s abrupt departure, staying in Portland for less than a day before jumping into full playoff mode. It was tested amid the sloping field the team was assigned at Toyota Stadium’s practice facilities for their Tuesday training, as well as the thunderstorms that cancelled plans for a gameday walk once Wednesday arrived. Amid the small inconveniences that would otherwise serve as points of aggravation, the Timbers were steadied by the feel of a plan, over a week in the offing, coming together in real time.

Come game time, though, that feel added to expectations. Within a group where experience and perspective often become tension-breaking levities, there was no room for mixed messages. The weight of the buildup, combined with the reminders of the previous year’s postseason misfortune, meant the Timbers’ game faces were evident from the moment they got off the team bus. The pleasantries and jokes that normally accompany the prematch tours of the playing surface gave way to the feel of pugilists inspecting their squared circle.

There was no better example of that than Blanco, a player whose mischievousness and sharp wit provide a light balance to the group. From the moment he stepped on the team bus on Wednesday, though, preparing to make the 20-minute ride from the team’s hotel to Toyota Stadium, the Argentine attacker adorned a façade of steel. Eye contact with others while en route to the visiting locker room said “not today,” without words. His meandering walk around the center circle before warmups, and before the gates opened for the crowd, was taken in isolation, when usually one or two Spanish-speaking teammates come along. Having missed almost all of last year’s postseason due to injury, Blanco may have been more focused on Dallas than most. But he was also showing the group’s shared burdens.

For 20 minutes in Frisco, those burdens became anchors, with Dallas crafting and riding an initial momentum. But soon, the Timbers figured out how to deal with the speed of one of the league’s fastest attackers, Michael Barrios, and the abandon former Timbers striker Maxi Urruti showed over the first 10 minutes was slowed by a well-targeted challenge from Ridgewell. When Valeri’s blast from distance, bending inside Jesse González’ right post from nearly 30 yards, gave the Timbers an early lead, the eventual 2-1 win felt destined, if for no other reason than, in the face of a second-half red card and Dallas’ monopolizing chances, the plan laid out over a week before had foretold the result.

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Savarese knew how he wanted to approach the second leg with the Sounders. As he moved magnets across the whiteboard in his Providence Park office, the Timbers’ boss saw the rest of the staff was on the same page.

“When the ball moves here,” he said, taking one of the board’s circular pieces and moving it to one side of the field, “this is how we have to respond.” Long, rectangular strips labeled with Timber names were molded into a new shape, showing how the 4-2-3-1 would adjust.

Nods and augmenting comments from Joseph, Llamosa, Murray and Valencia reflected a group that had been working from the same vision, one Savarese began to implement two days before. One day ahead of their Seattle departure, the group focused on how they would reinforce the vision’s final parts the next morning, on Beaverton’s training grounds.

“If we do that,” Savarese starts, as Joseph suggests a drill that would help take their message home, “I don’t think the guys will have the legs.”

“We usually do it 10, 10, 10,” Joseph acknowledges, noting the normal length of the drill, in minutes. For Savarese, the duration is too long. As much as the opponent itself, the biggest obstacle in Seattle could be how the team’s legs hold up. Such is the tax of MLS’ Knockout Round. Devoting 30 minutes to an exercise that emphasized movement could risk too much.

“Five, five, five,” Savarese says, acknowledging the drill’s importance. But the players’ fitness had to be preserved.

Dealing with short turnarounds had been the season’s toughest challenge. Mid-summer, a 15-game MLS unbeaten run fell as a stretch of three games in seven days produced three losses, with Portland being outscored nine-to-two. Two other compacted weeks during the season forced Savarese to choose his battles, often electing to spare veterans back-end travel while the team, as a consequence, played different lineups at home. The points dropped in places like New England and Minnesota may have been the difference between being at home or on the road in the Knockout Round, but they also left the team better equipped to deal with the stretch that started with the game in Vancouver.

The drill Joseph suggested focused on how the team would change their shape as the ball was at different sections of the field, something the staff felt was crucial if the team was to avoid playing the entire match at CenturyLink in their own defensive third. Instead of making it a dominant part of a day’s session, as it normally would be, the staff would touch on the basics, relying on the group’s focus instead of physical repetition. For Savarese, that repetition risked too much.

These were the make-or-break margins ahead of a potentially season-ending derby in Seattle. Can you spare half an hour on a drill? If not, can we cut it to 20 minutes? What are the two, three feet’s difference in a player’s position that makes the difference between a clear passing lane and a closed-down option? Which players had the legs to do, potentially, 120 minutes on NFL turf, and which players will have to be watched close?

The answers usually brought nodding heads from the Timbers’ coaches, or an occasional dive into more film. The various debates, though, would define the evening hours. Coaches would divide, find allies in one battle, only to see them become friendly foes in others. Ahead of the most important game of the season, silence carried more risks than rewards.

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On the road, goals are supposed to silence crowds. Especially when they threaten to end a season. But Blanco’s 78th minute tally did little to quiet CenturyLink Field. Nor did Dairon Asprilla’s goal in extra time. Instead of the robust cheers the partisan crowd offered for Raúl Ruidíaz’s two scores, the Sounders’ home offered a different type of din in the face of their rival’s goals. The panicked murmur from those supporting Rave Green joined eruptions from travelling Timbers Army supporters to produce a different type of roar.

The TA's voice was loudest after Asprilla’s final penalty, one that won’t go down in the record books as an official goal. But the conversion at the end of match’s penalty-kick shootout, following 120 minutes of play which, halfway through, cast a number of Timbers on the brink of exhaustion, will be remembered with as much love as almost any goal in Portland history. Having already tallied a goal and an assist over his preceding 58 minutes, the Timbers substitute had delivered the biggest performance of his professional career.

That his kick was even needed was born of three unpredictable mistakes, a dropped cross, a failed clearance and a penalty-box handball hinting the strain of the last 12 days was starting to overwhelm. And in the way Seattle was able to pin the Timbers’ defense, rendering them incapable of connecting passes on the counter attack, the Sounders began to foil Portland’s plan, forcing the team to rely on their defense’s core principles. In the face of 58 crosses and 67 percent possession for Seattle, mentality became a substitute for the team’s prepared approach. In the end, the confidence the team amassed from the moment the playoffs came in view carried Portland victorious off of CenturyLink’s field.

Back in the locker room, the celebrations took on a special tone. They always do, when you end an archrival’s season. But beneath the joy derived from two hours’ exertion in front of the Sounders’ crowd was a reward that had built over the previous month. More than a mere victory, even one that moved the team closer to a title, the Timbers could celebrate a vision come good.

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“DEFENDING CORNER KICK,” titled the scout’s last slide, like a nameplate above a locker. The debates over, Portland’s five coaches sat silently in the locker room, waiting for the next retort. Smiles came across each face as the men met each others’ eyes, satisfied they’d worked through every possible scenario.

Two days away, the trip to Seattle would be a game of players’ dreams. Each of the coaches had been in similar positions, before. But in their new careers, ones that were defined by the best they could get out of others, matches like Portland versus Seattle, in a do or die moment, still carried a Christmas-morning feel. When the moment’s within reach, it takes forever to come.

Finally, it was the group’s newest voice, one that had arrived midseason, that broke the silence.

“You know what? I’m feeling pretty good about this,” Joseph said. “Really good.”

Everybody left the room confident. Their plan was about to work out.

All Photos: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers

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