SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – For the opponent, depth players got valuable minutes. After all, Deportivo Saprissa’s first team played at San Carlos on Saturday, with former MLS players Johan Venegas and Jairo Arrieta scoring in El Monstruo Morado’s 2-0 victory two-and-a-half hours away from home. For the first-teamers who featured then for the 38-time Costa Rican champions, Tuesday’s friendly would have meant a quick turnaround from league play, something that would have defeated the purpose.
For the Portland Timbers, though, the day’s 4-0 win over Saprissa’s team was a first step: one which leads toward a regular-season opener on March 2; one which starts the defense of the team’s 2018 Western Conference title. Only two weeks into their preseason process, the Timbers are still far from their peak selves, and while a game against the first-team of a club that’s produced David Guzmán, Marvin Loría, Julio Cascante and Roy Miller would have been an interesting watch, it also would have tested an engine that’s not fully warm.
Paradoxically, though, Portland’s fitness was one aspect that stood out during their first competitive soccer of the preseason. While most players were limited to 45 minutes in an effort to build toward next month’s first kick, against Saprissa, players almost universally exhibited a capacity for more. Perhaps it’s the short offseason compelled by last winter’s MLS Cup run, or maybe it’s an internal competition that’s left so many Timbers competing for roles. Whatever the cause, head coach Giovanni Savarese’s squad has come back in noticeably good shape. As a result, the preseason has gotten off to a strong start.
“We saw some very good things from the group,” Savarese explained, after his team’s performance. “I think we still have to improve, still have to get better, but it’s good, for our first match, to be able to see of the things that we saw today.”
What they saw was an early goal from Dairon Asprilla, a first-half brace from Lucas Melano, and a Tomás Conechny tally near the hour mark that finished the day’s scoring. But the goals weren’t the only lessons to draw from the match at Costa Rica’s national team facility. Here are three other takeaways from the first match of 2019.
1. Getting everyone minutes will be a challenge
The through line for both Portland lineups on Tuesday was 45 minutes, a playing-time mark Savarese outlined as his team’s primary goal. Only MLS SuperDraft first-round draft pick Ryan Sierakowski went the full 90 minutes, with the Michigan State product hinting positional versatility, hold-up play and on-field intellect will be three strengths at the professional level.
The names missing from the day’s events, though, are among the team’s most prominent. Jeremy Ebobisse, Guzmán and Loría missed the match, having just returned from international duty, but the names of six other prominent Timbers were also absent from the day’s two selections: Jeff Attinella, Sebastian Blanco, Diego Chara, Larrys Mabiala, Diego Valeri and Jorge Villafaña. Each player (along with Timbers 2-signed goalkeeper Jake Leeker) worked out on the side, today.
Those selections tie to the reality of this Timbers’ preseason, as well as one of Savarese’s goals for the team’s second match in Costa Rica, scheduled to take place Thursday morning against C.S. Herediano. Effectively, the Timbers have almost three squads worth of players who need time this month, and given the nature of the team’s roster, almost all of them deserve time to show they can claim a meaningful role.
Oh, and those guys who didn’t play, today? They have to build into the season, too.
“We have another group that needs 45 minutes,” Savarese explained, when asked about goals for Thursday. “So, we want to make sure that, now, we start building that group, as well. And then we move forward to travel to Tucson.”
2. Pipelines were on display
The nature of the Timbers’ maturation into Major League Soccer has, for much of their first-team existence, left the team with veteran-laden squads. Such was the desire to compete as soon as possible, but such was also the team’s international drawing power, need to grow its academy, as well as the buying power emboldened by the team’s fervent fanbase. For many reasons, it’s been difficult for young players to claim minutes in Portland.
This camp, though, shows why that may be changing. In one lineup, today, you saw names like Cascante, Marco Farfan, Melano, Cristhian Paredes, Andy Polo and Sierakowski. The oldest of those players is 25 years old, and while that’s notably more mature than the side’s two 20 year olds (Farfan and Paredes), the ages still reflect potentially long Portland careers ahead of them.
The same was true for the day’s second unit. Salem, Oregon, product Carlos Anguiano is only 19 years old. Conechny is 20. All of Lennart Hein, Modou Jadama, Foster Langsdorf, Kendall McIntosh, Sierakowski, Bill Tuiloma, Eryk Williamson and Renzo Zambrano fall at or below that telling (if somewhat arbitrarily selected) mark.
The ways Portland have collected that talent are diverse. Regional development. International scouting. The college draft. Signing from other clubs, or lower divisions. Players like Ebobisse and Loría are also parts of that vision, with both having seen time with last year’s USL team and, over the last fortnight, made their senior international debuts.
There is no single way Portland has built up their youthful stockpile, but suddenly, they have one. And while each player has a challenge ahead of them to claim meaningful MLS minutes, there are more players that ever working to meet that goal. More than half the players in Timbers camp are 25 or younger.
3. The philosophy stood out
After one year of following Savarese, we should know. Praising individuals above the team, itself, is not in the coach’s style.
“No, no. It was always the group,” he said, when asked who stood out beyond the goalscorers. “The group has done really well. They played really well.”
For the group, though, Savarese had some praise – a few notes that reflected not only the team’s performance but also, perhaps, they consistency the club has maintained with the squad. Players like Claude Dielna and the team’s draft picks are new, and with the potential to still add players, the group could further change. But in the continuity that Savarese, technical director Ned Grabavoy, and GM/president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson have elected to maintain from last season, the team has a floor to build from. It’s has a virtue which, combined with the team’s heightened fitness and competition, is driving this preseason.
That may be why, of all the aspects which stood out to Savarese, the most prominent were stylistic – things which reflect the philosophy that, over 13 months, he’s constantly worked to build on.
“Second,” as he listed goals for Tuesday’s game, “is to make sure that we understand some of the things that we want [the players] to do as a team. The movements, how we want the ball to be moved, as well, and some other things that we want to make sure that we start building. It was very positive today.”
The team’s speed in attack stood out in the first half, as did the small pattern play that allowed the Timbers to quickly transition through midfield and find attackers in dangerous spots. Defensively, Saprissa’s players were unable to find success in the middle of the field, with tight defense and midfield lines combining with quick decisions and, notably, loud communication to maintain the Timbers’ shape.
It’s the first game of the season. And against the opposition, a cynic could say the team was supposed to look good. But it was how the team looked good that should be encouraging, to both Savarese and his charges. The players are fit, they’re executing well, and in the result, there’s evidence that they’re ready to fight for their spots.