KBSR, Timbers @ SJ, 4.5.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

KeyBank Scouting Report | The choices that will define Portland's approach in San Jose

BEAVERTON, Ore. – If not now, when? That’s the context around the Portland Timbers this week, whose game at the winless San Jose Earthquakes Saturday presents an opportunity for a breakthrough. Also winless in their season’s first four weeks, the defending Western Conference champions visit a team that’s failed to record a point, scored only twice in four matches, has conceded 14 times and is coming off a 5-0 home loss to Los Angeles FC. If the Timbers’ first win doesn’t come this week, when will it come?

That’s not the type of language head coach Giovanni Savarese likes to hear around a game, and in truth, the mood around his team since their return from California has been steady. Sunday’s 2-1 loss to the LA Galaxy at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif. represented a point of progress, so much so that “if not now, when” feels like an appropriate question to ask. Savarese, however, will have none of it.

“San Jose is another tough team.,” Savarese said at his weekly press conference, saying his team cannot see the Earthquakes as a mere opportunity to breakthrough. “There’s not an easy game in this league, and each team brings you something different.”

Implicit in Savarese’s axiom is a more cogent reality: The Timbers need to worry about themselves. Of course, Portland needs to realize the danger of players like Chris Wondolowski, Cristian Espinoza and Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, and they have to have a plan to break the man-marking scheme new head coach Matías Almeyda has doggedly installed. But the 34-game arc of a Major League Soccer season demands teams take longer views, and as much as Savarese wants to approach every game as a final, where the team wants to be one week, one month, or even one regular season from now has to remain important.

That’s why progress is going to be the true measure for Saturday’s match. It just so happens, for this game, it’s impossible to imagine a progressing scenario that doesn’t includes a victory. As much as the Timbers should worry about how their defensive cohesion, attacking threat, and overall style are progressing, at some point, you have to accomplish goals. And no matter how difficult every MLS game may be, victory over the San Jose Earthquakes is, right now, a minimum-standard goal.

“For me, every game is a final …,” Savarese reiterated, countering the idea that the San Jose match represents anything unique.  “This game is no less important than the ones that we’ve played, and every game is a must win, for us. We go every single match not to tie but to win games. This is nothing different.”

The steps the Timbers take in their latest final will impact the next final, though. If all goes to Savarese’s plan, those steps be part of the a progression that gets the Timbers back on course. And should those steps fail? The season’s goals will remain the same, though the questions for solutions will become far more urgent.

Here is this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report – three key decisions Savarese will have to make before Saturday’s kickoff in Avaya Stadium (5pm, ROOT SPORTS).

Which way to go with the formation

Portland took some significant steps forward last week, with a move from a 4-2-3-1 to a 5-3-2 formation helping to solidify the team’s foundations. The doubts and mistakes that had characterized performances at Colorado, LAFC and Cincinnati were gone, for the most part, from the team’s performance in Carson. Like any good foundation, it gave the team something to build on.

“This is a system that is always good,” Savarese said, of the 5-3-2. “We used it many times last year. If it’s during matches, if it’s at the beginning of the game, a team that can adapt to different situations and can feel comfortable is always a plus.”

How applicable that formation is to Saturday – or, to the team’s longer-term goals – is a bigger debate. With the Quakes challenged in attack and playing a one-striker (Wondolowski) shape, three central defenders and three central midfielders might be overkill. Committing so many players that deep in the formation could also limit Portland’s ability to, higher up the field, use San Jose’s extreme man-marking approach against them. If the long-term vision for Portland is to be more of a 4-2-3-1 team (as the team’s roster construction implies), isn’t Saturday a good opportunity to switch back to their preferred approach?

The counterpoint, though, is the first three weeks of the season, where Portland conceded 10 times while using a 4-2-3-1. That counterpoint extends to how the team looked on Sunday against the Galaxy. In the 5-3-2, Sunday’s was the team’s best performance of the season. That formation may not be ideal against the Earthquakes, but at some point, shouldn’t you go with what you do best? Maybe a 4-3-2-1 set, used often last season, would provide a middle ground.

“This is a team that plays very, very different than every other team,” Savarese said, when describing the Earthquakes. “You have to be prepared for what they’re able to do on the field … we have to be prepared and look for ways to find space, the way LAFC did very well.”

There may be no right choice between the two worlds, and success in either likely comes down to how players execute. The Quakes’ specific challenges, of course, play a huge part. But the direction Savarese chooses may also hint at how he sees the next weeks of the season evolving. Go with the 5-3-2, and you’re planning for a slow build from new foundations. A 4-2-3-1, however, would hint at a more assertive approach to getting the team back on course.

Welcome back, Mabiala. You’re playing with …

Entailed in the formation debate is another decision: What you do in central defense? Last week, the matchup against LA star Zlatan Ibrahimovic led Savarese to use all of Julio Cascante, Claude Dielna and Bill Tuiloma in the middle. This week, with Larrys Mabiala back from his red-card suspension, do the Timbers still need to throw numbers at the problem?

Wondolowski will set the MLS record for all-time goals this season, but Zlatan, he’s not. In addition, with the play of Tuiloma over the last two weeks, Portland has reason to think a Mabiala-Tuiloma pairing can offer the composure that was missing last month. After seeing Tuiloma’s last 180 minutes, it feels like, at some point, we have to find out how good he and Mabiala can be in tandem.

The other possibility with Tuiloma, though, is a return to midfield, where he was so strong against FC Cincinnati three weeks ago. With David Guzmán playing well last week, Tuiloma’s presence in the middle feels less needed. Still, it’s possible that the scouting Timbers coaches did this week revealed a need for additional strength in midfield against the Quakes.

“Wherever we need him,” Savarese said, when asked his view on Tuiloma’s most-valuable role. “I think he’s shown that he can perform in [midfield and defense]. I think it depends on what he gives in the middle, what he gives in the back, that will lead us to understand if he’s the right choice for us in certain games.

“I’m a believer that if a player can perform two positions well, it’s always a plus. He’s done that the past two games.”

As with the formations, there appear to be a couple of clear choices, should the Timbers go back to two men in the middle. Does Tuiloma stay there, giving us a glimpse of his partnership with Mabiala? Or, will Cascante get the call, freeing the New Zealand international to pursue life in midfield?

Where does Sebastián Blanco go?

Just as the formation choice influences how many defenders you need, so does the choice of defenders impact the midfield. Do you want three players in the middle to help protect a central defensive pair? Is that overkill, if you commit an extra defender to the line? Or, do you stick with what you did last week, and go with numbers in both central defense and midfield?

Those decisions will impact Sebastián Blanco more than most players. Normally a left wing for the Timbers, Blanco was drawn into central midfield last week, helping to reinforce a triangle he shared with Diego Chara and Guzmán. Later in the game, he moved up into one of the 5-3-2’s forward positions before eventually moving back left when the team switched to a 4-2-3-1. It’s the type of versatility that helps the Timbers be flexible – a versatility that would take on an entirely different form should he partner with Diego Valeri as dueling 10s in a 4-3-2-1.

For a lot of soccer fans, thinking about those scenarios elicits a socket-popping eye roll. The importance of those choices, though, can be boiled down to something more accessible. Blanco is Portland’s best attacking piece, right now, meaning getting the most out of him likely gets the team much closer to their offensive potential. His versatility, though, allows the team to address other problems, whether it’s connecting through the middle while transitioning from defense to attack or, against a team with San Jose’s approach, using his gravity to draw defenders away from vulnerable spots.

In a matchup that presents Timbers’ coaches with a number of compelling choices, how the staff leverages Blanco will be telling. If he’s played in central midfield, that will say one thing about Portland’s approach. Deploying him at his normal left wing’s spot, or even as a 10, will say quite another.