There was an ideal we carried into the 2019 Major League Soccer season, a vision of what the Portland Timbers could be. Like most teams’ could-be's, that ideal was built on what we’d seen before – not only the 2018 Western Conference Championship campaign but also the years prior, when the team finished first in the West’s regular season (2017) and, sandwiching a near-miss on the 2016 playoffs, the team’s first MLS title (2015).
Some predictions of the team’s 2019 struggles seem prescient, now. And with the Timbers’ 0-4-1 after their first month, it’s helpful to look at the logic behind some of those views. But it’s also helpful to remember that, within the team’s current 28-man roster, there are pieces that have succeeded in this league before. Why they’ve stop succeeding has becoming the defining question of this season’s initial month.
That’s a question we’ve tried to tackle multiple times over the team’s slow start, but quickly, a set of different queries is becoming more interesting: How justifiable was that ideal of what the 2019 Timbers could be? How far is the current team performing below that level? And can the team’s problem areas be addressed with the current squad?
Ultimately, all those questions speak to the same thing – the process the team has to be going through, right now. The next chapter of the team’s season is going to be about solutions. There are no longer questions about what the team is, right now.
"It's not the best feeling," team captain Diego Valeri said, Saturday night following the team's 3-0 loss to San Jose. Still, the likelihood Timbers’ planners see in this group, and the players who are getting playing time right now, reaching the team’s goals will determine the path forward. It will determine whether the solutions will be internal or external.
What was supposed to be
No matter the organization, no matter the sport, every team’s best-case scenario comes down to the same thing: What if we improve on the bad while the good stays the same? Typed out, it sound ridiculous, but it really is how ceilings get defined. What if everything goes as planned?
The Timbers’ version of that meant another year of growth from Jeremy Ebobisse, who would be a starting striker for the first time in his professional career. It meant more production from the right wing and Andy Polo, who could leverage his first year’s experience in Major League Soccer. It meant more consistency from David Guzmán – not having to deal with World Cup commitments – and one of Julio Cascante, Claude Dielna or Bill Tuiloma stepping into the left-center back’s role.
Even now, knowing how the new season has started, none of those decisions look unreasonable. Some players, like Ebobisse and Tuiloma, are not far from their expected levels. In fact, they’ve been fine, as long we you’re not expecting developing players to be stars overnight. What’s missing from the picture, though, are the backup plans for the other spots, as well as the different things that could have gone wrong at other positions.
For example, what if the right-wing production doesn’t improve? It’s too early in the season to say it won’t, but another year like 2018 from Polo or Dairon Asprilla, impacts your team’s goal-scoring profile. It means more players in other places will have to step up.
In that world, what if the team can’t continue to rely on Valeri and Sebastián Blanco to carry the goal-scoring load? That only adds to the context around the right wing and forward positions. Additionally, if the team’s midfield looks more like its first-half-of-2018, have-to-play-three-centrally self than what we saw in the playoffs? Again, the problems start to mount, this time by needing to commit another player to the middle.
The fullback play has been more inconsistent than last year, something that hasn’t been helped by the defending from the team’s wingers. That’s left central defense, an area the team knew would be work in progress, exposed. Again, just as in attack, the problems start feeding into each other.
"To give up 15 goals in five games is embarrassing," goalkeeper Jeff Attinella confessed, Saturday, "and at the end of the day, it's about digging in and just taking pride in not giving up goals, and when the ball hits the back of the net, making sure that everyone is switched on and make sure that it doesn't happen again.
"I think what you're seeing is that once we give up one, it kind of seems that it snowballs from there, and then we give up two or three, and I don’t know. Maybe it's just about having pride in the ball not hitting the back of the net."
That's the reality of the now. None of it answers the core questions, above, about the team's potential. In fact, it only plays into part of the problem. When we’re thinking of what this year’s Timbers should be, we’re anchoring ourselves to last year’s performance; or, perhaps we’re anchoring ourselves to some kind of amalgam of the last four seasons. But at what point does that reverence become fantasy, leaving us to live the sobering, surprising reality of now?
"This is soccer, and you have some moments in the season where this happens," Valeri explained. "We have to be patient and confident ... We need to improve on mistakes, because in the end, this is a game of mistakes, and this is the moment to try and reduce this amount of mistakes and to reduce the percentage of situations that [create] those mistakes in games."
Five games are too few to completely change how we see the world; or, to completely change how we see the Timbers’ squad. But it’s something we should keep in mind – perhaps at the front of our mind – going forward. Because as some point, everything we need to know about the Timbers’ talent will exist today, divorced from what it was before.
How things are different, now
The most persistent questions around the Timbers target the team’s central defense, and given the team’s goals allowed column, it’s not hard to see why. Fifteen scores conceded in five games is the worst rate in Major League Soccer. If you’re looking for reasons why Portland hasn’t, in any game, conceded fewer than two goals, the center backs are a good place to start.
But that’s only the start of any honest evaluation, one that always identifies more problems. In four of the team’s five games, this season, the team’s wide defending has left their central players exposed. There’ve been other times where the team’s central midfield has been at fault. On one hand, the central defenders haven’t done enough to cover up for other problems, but on the other hand, those other problems make it difficult to fully evaluate players like Cascante, Dielna, Larrys Mabiala and Tuiloma. How do you evaluate what defenders can do in a normal set of circumstances when you consistently hand them the abnormal?
Regardless, that’s one area where the team hasn’t met expectations, as are those areas where the help hasn’t come. Like the issues higher up the field, where the team’s transition play is suffering, finding solutions is a matter of “how far off” – how far off the team is from its desired level.
Eight days ago, the answer was “not that far.” The defense conceded twice – neither from the run of play – at the LA Galaxy but otherwise looked solid. Likewise, the attack only scored once, but there were a number of other good movements that should have, in their final moments, met better execution. Against a talented Galaxy team at home? It seemed like an encouragingly-typical MLS road performance.
After Sunday’s game in San Jose, though, those improvements are a world off, leaving the Timbers with a last 180 minutes that, in their difference in approach, mentality, and execution, only confuse the problems.
“The reality is," head coach Giovanni Savarese said, after Saturday's match, "that we have a tendency to think that, when we play with teams like this, that were struggling, the games are going to be easier. I mentioned it before very clearly, that if we come here thinking that it’s going to be an easy match, then it’s going to be very tough.
"In the first half, we didn’t put in the work that we needed to. I think some players did, [but] we deserved to be 3-0 (down) in the first half. Soccer is fair, soccer is what you give in, and I think the first half it wasn’t good enough."
Is potential still possible
No matter the confusion, some conclusions will need to happen soon. If you believe the indicators you saw against the Galaxy, you might conclude the talent to succeed is still there, there are combinations (as in that day’s 5-3-2) that can still work, and the key problems are in mentality and execution. In some ways, that’s the easiest way to explain how the Timbers can play well at a Galaxy team with playoff talent and then, six days later, play so poorly against a still-building San Jose squad.
Increasingly, though, Portland may need to consider an “all of the above” outlook.
"It's probably a little bit of everything," Valeri said, after Saturday's match. "It’s something that we probably collectively have to (address), and we have to raise our level in every role, and that's it. Then we have to do take our responsibility ... everyone has to take it, [so] there is no more mystery."
Is the issue execution? Yes. Is it scheme, tactics, or planning? That may play into it too, partially because those aspects may still, in terms of player performances, be building on best-case hopes. But what if those player performances the Timbers have come to count on over the last four years aren’t likely to return? And what if the potential we’ve anchored ourselves to with those past performances needs to, now, be ignored?
That’s where things get scary, and not only with how we perceive things like the aging curves of players like Valeri, Diego Chara and Mabiala, or the ability of the younger generation to fill the surfacing gaps. If the tenets that had defined the team's preseason potential have changed – and changed so drastically, in unison, and with a magnitude that can derail an entire season – the solutions the team have tried for over the last five games become far less relevant.
If Portland’s potential needs to be reassessed, it starts a whole new, different search for solutions. That’s why the coming weeks have to be about reclaiming that potential: discovering if the anchoring of 2015-2018 still matters; or, in order to salvage 2019, the team's decision makers would need to adopt a different approach.