It’s a game Portland Timbers’ fans will want to forget, though any time a fanbase can say that, it’s the negatives that will be most memorable.
Such is the case after their team’s second-consecutive three-goal loss – a 3-0 defeat to FC Cincinnati, an MLS expansion team, that erases any silver lining that existed around the team’s slow start. Now, it’d be too kind to call the team’s start slow. Six goals to the bad after three weeks, the defending Western Conference champions have problems.
"It’s definitely not the result that we want," head coach Savarese said, bluntly, from the field at Nippert Stadium
The team's winless state may prove the biggest memory from the loss to FC Cincinnati, but there were undoubtedly others. Here are four of the more prominent things that will stick in our minds after Portland’s third week loss:
Made it past 10, but 15 proves more important
By the time kickoff came, broadcasters and reporters were relaying the number 15, as if it were law. “Survive the first 15 minutes,” was the prescription they’d heard, even though throughout the lead-up to Sunday’s game, the number was far more uncertain. Ten to 15 minutes was the more common refrain during the week’s training, something that spoke to the day’s reality: However long it took for the game’s emotion to burn off, that’s how long Portland needed to be on their guard.
If we’re being honest, the atmosphere at Nippert Stadium was good, but it wasn’t more than the Timbers see in multiple other venues. That’s not a shot at FC Cincinnati’s crowd; it’s more a compliment to where MLS has evolved. It’s no longer national news when you play in front of a full-engaged crowd.
Cincinnati’s opening goal came just inside that 15-minute window, but it also came after the initial emotion had abated. The goal Kendall Waston scored wasn’t the crest of a quarter hour’s uncontained excitement. It was similar to so many other goals we’ve seen from the Costa Rican international throughout his MLS run.
And that’s the problem. Nobody should be surprised that FC Cincinnati was targeting Waston – the most dangerous set piece weapon in MLS. The surprise was the simplicity with which Cincinnati used him. If there’s a memory to take from that, it’s in how easy it was for MLS’ new team to score their first home goal.
Control, helplessness, then loss
If the second half against LAFC felt too much like Portland’s visit to Red Bull Arena in 2018, today’s felt too much like LAFC. And feelings like that shouldn’t happen multiple times per season, let alone in consecutive weeks.
Just last week, there was a first-half stretch that felt like Portland soccer. And, just like then (as was the case last year in New York), the team went into intermission down only one goal. That stretch gave the Timbers some hope coming out of the locker room, but as was the case in New Jersey and southern California, that hope couldn’t produce goals.
Call Allan Cruz’s backheel goal from the edge of the six-yard box luck, if you want, but that type of deflection-then-goal luck happened against LAFC, too. And while Cincinnati’s third goal was far different, the moments before the score could be summarized the same way. When Portland’s defense breaks down, right now, it breaks down catastrophically, giving the match a sense of chaos and helplessness which, from a distance, feels like too much to overcome.
"We have good players. We have a good group," Savarese said. "But we need to make sure that we perform 90 minutes plus in the game, and be able to give everything that we have for the group. That’s the piece that needs to be a little bit better now."
Ten goals in three games would be a problem in preseason. It’s a problem when you’re playing FIFA 19, let alone actual soccer. And a team shouldn’t wait until their defense’s fourth bad performance to be urgently worried about those results.
No denying the bad start, now
You can’t dig too deep on the Colorado draw because of the blizzard. How many times did you hear people like me tell you that? And coming out of LAFC? Well, Bob Bradley’s team is really good, and the 4-1 finals exaggerates the gap between the two clubs.
But what’s the excuse now? The emotion of Nippert Stadium? Perhaps, but this wasn’t a game where Portland was steamrolled from the start. Instead, it was a game where the defensive shortcomings, inability to control the game in the middle, and lack of consistent pressure in attack all conspired to produce a bad result.
You can survive one or two of those states. Some styles of play actually plan around them. But when all three are working together, you get lines like this: no wins in three games; one point; 10 goals allowed; minus-six goal difference.
"I’m always going to take full responsibility for this group. But we also need to be patient," Savarese explained. "There’s 12 games away from home. The guys have been away many, many, many days. We just have to make sure that we continue to work and go forward. The only way to do that is by sticking together.
"This is going to be a difficult time. We went through it last year, but I think it’s different, this time. We just have to make sure we find our strength and our belief in the group."
To answer the question, above: There are no excuses. The players and coaching staff undoubtedly know it, and just as last spring when the team went into the March international break needing to regroup, so the team sits this year, taking inventory of itself, needing the most serious questions to come from within.
In 2018, the team answered those questions by consolidating around each other. Now, we wait two weeks for their next response.
Another key red card
And finally, something to carry into next week. Just as today, when Diego Chara was serving his red-card suspension, a key Timbers player will miss the group’s trip to the LA Galaxy. Picking up a yellow card in the second half, Larrys Mabiala added to his first-half booking, leaving him out for the impending trip to Carson, California.
In his absence, there’s no one, obvious solution. Claude Dielna got his first start as a Timber but was culpable on the first goal allowed. Bill Tuiloma could move back into defense, but will he be needed in midfield? If so, Julio Cascante’s destined to return to the first group.
Regardless, this is the type of insult-to-injury situation that makes mountains out of molehills, and while that second cliché usually alludes to exaggeration, the Timbers can’t afford to underestimate their current challenge. They have to see the mountain in front of them, exaggerated or not, and be ready for the challenge.
"Coming to Cincinnati and losing, 3-0, is not something that we’re proud of," Savarese said. "We need to continue to work."