TUCSON, Ariz. – “It could have been better.”
Isolated, the phrase reads like the response to a Twitter meme: five words to describe your childhood; or, five words to describe your last relationship. It’s vague enough to apply to anything, without context, yet sharp enough to be both opinion and, if uttered from a position of authority, sobering conclusion.
When Portland Timbers’ head coach Giovanni Savarese’s name gets attached to those words, a curiosity accompanies them, too. Thankfully for Timbers fans, those words not only apply to a preseason game – only a preseason game – but they also apply to a victory. The Timbers did, ultimately, down the rival Seattle Sounders, 2-1, on Wednesday night at Kino Sports Complex to open their Mobile Mini Sun Cup competition.
But as with any preseason result, the most important parts lay beneath the score. And within those parts, there were plenty of reasons for Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer to call the result, “good,” as he did to open his post-match media scrum. Trying to keep his starters on a regular schedule – on which, to this point, has had his best XI playing on weekends, not mid-week – Seattle fielded a team of backups, USL players, and academy products.
Against Portland’s first team, that group weathered a mild start to take a 33rd minute lead, only finding themselves behind in the 88th minute, when Jeremy Ebobisse converted a Dairon Asprilla pass for the night’s winner. Until then, the Timbers’ only goal came from via Diego Valeri, from the penalty spot, with the team’s best chances left unrequited in the game’s opening minutes.
“You know what happens? The guys who usually don’t play, as much, they’re very hungry,” Savarese explained after the match, when asked about his starters facing Seattle’s reserves. “They’re going to come, they’re going to run more than the starters.
“You can never say, ‘Oh, these players, this is the second team.’ Every game is tough.”
It was a view shared among Savarese’s players, too, with central defender Larrys Mabiala agreeing with his coach’s five-word assessment. The team was trying new things, he explained, something that every group does during their preseason.
But the new facets we saw from the Timbers – defensive high lines, more aggressive pressing, positional flexibility – were offset by another fact that became obvious as Seattle, throughout the first half, grew past Portland’s slightly stronger start. To this point in preseason, the Timbers haven’t faced Major League Soccer-level competition. The Sounders had, and it showed.
While Portland got different looks in Costa Rica, having played groups from Deportivo Saprissa and C.S. Herediano, Schmetzer’s team offered something new. It provided something more capable of offering consequences; more invested in producing a result.
“In Costa Rica, it was different,” Savarese explained. “The environment was different. The type of game was different.
“Today, it felt a little bit more like a game that is more competitive. Every time that Portland plays Seattle, it’s always competitive. It doesn’t matter. There are no friendly matches.”
The result could have been both better or worse, depending on which near misses you dwell on. The Timbers generated strong chances early for Lucas Melano and Valeri, while the Sounders would have wanted a score through Will Bruin in the first half, with the striker’s misstep preventing him from executing on an open chance near goal. By that time, Seattle had figured out how to break Portland’s pressure, with their transition play eventually creating Handwalla Bwana’s 33rd-minute opener.
They were the ebbs and flows that, together, provided a reminder to those who have followed the Timbers’ preseason – who, to this point, had been told of a steady progress from camp’s inception at the end of January. As a former U.S. president once said, albeit in a more serious context, progress is not always a straight line: “but instead, it zigs and zags in fits and starts.”
Given Portland ultimately won Wednesday night, calling the performance a zig or a zag, a fit or a start, could come off as too strong, even if there’s something irresistible about drawing strong conclusions from these, the least important performances of the season. There is something liberating about a nice, reckless proclamation about results with, ultimately, have no consequences. If there is a way hot take culture makes sense, it’s ironically, and in preseason.
But Wednesday night was, no doubt, something different, even if it wasn’t so different in terms of MLS winters, in general.
“I think we are still in the preseason mode …,” Savarese said, both pragmatically and, with no other options, relentingly. “There were some good moments, but we need to grow a little bit more.”
Describe your preseason result in eight words? Be it win, loss or draw, no matter the progress before, the conclusions to draw two-and-a-half weeks from your first real game are often the same: We need to grow a little bit more.