BEAVERTON, Ore. – Six weeks of preseason expectation have finally given way to what, under normal circumstances, is a time defined as much by anticipation as preparation. For most teams, no matter the sport, the days before a season’s start culminate months of brooding energy, the hopes and dread born from which hover until the campaign’s initial whistle.
That, however has not been the case this week in Beaverton, Oregon, with the logic of the Portland Timbers’ unique mood only clear once you try to explain it. At the Timbers Training Center, it feels like September, again, when the rhythms of last season began to push the Timbers to their strong, 2018 MLS Cup final-reaching finish. With only one starter departing, the team has been able to pick up where it left off – able to approach Saturday’s match against the Colorado Rapids (3pm PT, ROOT SPORTS), the first of their season, with the same routines and culture that defined 2018’s run.
For Saturday’s game, that could be a good thing or a bad one. The highs and lows born from that brooding, preseason energy can lead to unpredictability. Perhaps last year, without their routines established, the Timbers fell victim to that, going 0-3-2 in their season-opening, five-game road run. The other half of that coin, though, are the potential highs, ones that can carry teams to strong, emotion-driven results.
All of which brings us to the Rapids. Coming off a disappointing first season under then-new coach Anthony Hudson, the Rapids undertook a major makeover this winter, importing a series of established Major League Soccer talents to give opponents more to think about in their defensive halves of the field. Kei Kamara and Diego Rubio are proven goalscorers, while both Nicolás Mezquida and Benny Feilhaber are capable of delivering them the ball from midfield. In the acquisition of Keegan Rosenberry, the Rapids have a fullback that can provide width up the field. On paper, the theory of the new Rapids is clear.
That makeover also creates a small sense of déjà vu for Portland, a team that opened last season against a team that had undergone a similar transformation: the LA Galaxy. Under the direction of Sigi Schmid, the Galaxy imported veteran talents like David Bingham, Perry Kitchen, Ola Kamara, Chris Pontius and Servando Carrasco to try to plug holes, eventually claiming a 2-1 victory over the Timbers in that season’s first round. Though that roster-building strategy left the team without the depth it needed to adjust to the season’s coming challenges, it was enough to take full points on night one.
That memory needs to fuel the Timbers. Come out of this, the 2019 preseason, in the same gear that defined 2018’s opener, then the Rapids can be this year’s Galaxy. Learn from last season’s woes, though, and the 2019 campaign will get off to a better start.
Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report: Three areas of focus for the Timbers’ trip to Colorado.
Let it snow, let it snow … how about, “No?”
This is exactly what you dream of as a fan, right? Your team’s first competitive soccer game in months, and the game-time conditions forecast below-freezing temperatures with a 100 percent chance of snow. Orange ball. Passes coming to standstills the moment they hit the ground. This is what they call The Beautiful Game, isn’t it?
Maybe not. Saturday’s game may be fine, with the field staying green amid threats of white, but it’s also possible that it could turn into a plodding affair as groundskeepers try to clear as much powder as possible before each half’s kickoff. If that’s the case, one goal could be enough to win – and we should count ourselves lucky to see as much.
The silver lining, for the Timbers, is their new life amid the snow. Over their final days in Tucson, Arizona, Portland was subjected to a surprise snowstorm, with another bout of falling frost greeting the team when they returned to the training fields in Beaverton. If it does snow on Saturday, it will be the third city in seven days in which Timbers players have dealt with such conditions.
“This year is a little bit weird, because it is my first time practicing in Arizona in the snow,” midfielder Diego Chara told Talk Timbers, this week. “We got back to Portland, and it’s snowing, too. It’s a little bit weird with the weather.
“But like I said before, we are professional players. We are prepared to play on any surface and in any conditions.”
The refrain from players like Diego Valeri and Zarek Valentin, as they talked to the media this week, is that the conditions will be the same for both teams. That’s both true and regrettable. Though their geography might hint otherwise, Colorado are no experts at playing in the snow, either, and while Rapids fans may be eager to see what their rebuilt team can do, a Saturday storm my leave both sides handcuffed.
Kamara and Rubio: “They’re good.”
Kamara and Rubio combined for 22 goals last year between their stays in Vancouver (Kamara) and Kansas City (Rubio) – a number that always needs some further clarification. Factor in playing time considerations, and the duo combined for 1.50 goals per 90 minutes. As a team, Colorado averaged 1.06 goals per game last season, overall.
At a minimum, the Rapids will be more dangerous, but given their lack of time together, you’d think Kamara and Rubio would be a slightly unknown commodity, in terms of their combination. What’s the dynamic going to be like, between them? It seems like you’d need a real, competitive game to know, for sure.
Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese disagrees.
“No, we have enough tape,” Savarese explained, when asked about the paradox of having to prepare for a team when the main tool of preparation, film, might be lacking as it concerns Kamara and Rubio. “We’ve seen enough. They’re good. [The Rapids are] a good team.”
They’re a different team, too. As Colorado searched for an identity throughout the 2018 season, the team evolved to playing a version of a 4-4-2 formation, with their four midfielders arranged in a diamond between defense and forwards. This winter’s acquisitions have built on that concept, with Kamara and Rubio leading a group that should have Mezquida at the diamond’s tip, Feilhaber along one of its edges.
“The additions make them a difficult team,” Savarese said. “They play completely different. They tried a little bit, last year, toward the end to go in this path, but I think they’ve perfected it, and it’s going to be a challenge.”
It’s become almost redundant to say that a team is hard to beat when they’re at home. All road games in Major League Soccer are difficult, regardless of the opponent. Blame it on the travel differences. Blame it on the league’s rules. Even games you should win are hard.
The challenge Colorado presents, however, has grown since last season, and grown independent of those truisms. How high the Rapids’ ceiling is, that’s an interesting debate, but their talent is undoubtedly better, now.
In the Timbers’ defense
When Portland’s starting lineup becomes public on Saturday, 10 of the 11 players who started the group’s last competitive game – December’s MLS Cup final in Atlanta – may again take the field for the opening kickoff. Savarese can, of course, elect to go a different route, but if last Saturday’s final preseason game is any indication, the only change from that day at Mercedes-Benz Stadium may prove the absence of Liam Ridgewell.
“Replacing Liam is impossible,” Savarese said, this week. “We’re not looking to replace him. We’re looking to make sure that we get something different with the players that we have.”
The process of filling that void highlight so much of what the 2019 Timbers, from a squad-building perspective, are about. Julio Cascante, the starter alongside Larrys Mabiala in the team’s final preseason game, is the product of a Costa Rica connection that continues to prove fruitful for Portland. Bill Tuiloma and Modou Jadama, other contenders at central back throughout the preseason, reflect the new attention and investment the organization has put into the T2 USL side, while the ability to acquire Claude Dielna from the New England Revolution was made possible in part by the stockpile of Targeted Allocation Money the team built through deals like Darlington Nagbe’s and Fanendo Adi’s departures.
There’s quality there. Mabiala’s standout 2018 says as much. But the group’s defining characteristic may be its depth – an attribute that has become an organizational mandate across the board.
“In every position … they all compete,” Savarese explained, generalizing after being asked about the center back position. “Who’s going to play is going to be based on what we see, right now, in practice: who’s looking best, doing the job that we feel at the moment deserves the opportunity to start playing.
“Everybody’s competing. That’s the good thing. That’s what we want. We want to make sure that we have two players in every position that can fight for a starting position, and that’s what we’re going to do … the good thing is that we have four or five center backs that can do a very good job. The competition is going to be very good.”
With Ridgewell’s departure, that organizing principle has to produce. Teams don’t win games with the quality of their 19th- through 30th-best players, directly. Those players either have to emerge as consistent contributors or push those playing ahead of them to be better. Ultimately, with Portland’s theory of roster management, competition has to fuel internal development.
If Cascante gets the nod on Saturday, it will be telling, but no more telling than any picture in your phone. It will capture a moment in time. But if the theory of depth is really about driving players to be better, then one week’s decision can only tell us so much about how the season might play out.