KBSR, Timbers @ TFC, 4.27.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

KeyBank Scouting Report | The theme that's come into focus ahead of Portland's visit to Toronto

Our KeyBank Scouting Report usually focuses on three different aspects of the coming Portland Timbers game, hoping to avoid defining a game by any single element. But in the wake of last Saturday’s victory in Columbus, Ohio – and in the build-up that started after the game three weeks ago, in San Jose, California – a single theme is becoming increasingly clear, one which is defining improvement in every aspect of the team.

At times, this theme gets called commitment. At others, it’s referred to in more general terms, like work. Mentality is a related but more over-arching concept, while the word desire has also been evoked. No matter how euphemistic you want to get, though, each term refers to the Timbers’ level effort, albeit in slightly different forms.

“When the desire is there, now we can concentrate on the tactics,” Giovanni Savarese said a week ago, describing the improvement he saw in his team during that loss in Frisco, Texas. Implicit in that statement, though, is the acknowledgement the desire needed to improve, a process the Timbers boss saw continue against Crew SC.

“When you have a good group that recognizes that some things need to be better – and with a coaching staff, as a unit, we make sure that we keep on pushing to make sure they are where we want them to be – change has come through that: the realization that we need to be better,” Savarese said on Tuesday, “and the realization that some things need to be improved, and analyzed. That’s what we have done. That’s how we have found this change. Hopefully we can maintain it and can continue to go forward the same way.”

The path forward leads northeast from Columbus, across Lake Erie to the home of one of the best attacks in Major League Soccer. Through six games this season, Toronto FC (4-1-1) has scored 18 times, marking the highest scoring rate in the league. This week, however, star striker Jozy Altidore (five goals) is out with a hamstring injury, so while the newly-arrived Alejandro Pozuelo (four games; four goals, five assists) is one of the hottest players in the league, a different part of the Reds’ profile demands a little more attention. Head coach Greg Vanney’s team has given up eight goals in their last three games.

Whether the Timbers can take advantage of that new vulnerability Saturday (12pm PT, ROOT SPORTS) likely comes down to the same things that have defined this season, thus far. Whether you call it commitment, work, mentality or desire, the effort the team gives will define this weekend’s performance in Toronto; or, as we start with in this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report, the new word that’s describing Portland’s on-field approach:

Honesty

Over the last two weeks, Savarese is using a new term when it comes to the Timbers, one that can be applied both to the team’s mentality and its approach. The need to be “honest” has been evoked more lately, with the coach using the word prominently on at least two occasion during his Tuesday media availability.

“It’s important for us that we understand that we have to stay honest and continue to work the same way that we’ve done these past games,” he said, early in his session, before shortly after saying the key to making progress on Saturday’s victory is, “maintaining a different mentality, maintaining the honest work we have shown, these last two games.”

Both times Savarese used “honest,” there, he used it in conjunction with “work,” a connotation Timbers television and radio soccer analyst Ross Smith dove into on Wednesday night’s Talk Timbers. Smith related the term to his time playing in England, when a former manager used it to describe his dedication on the field. You should leave the field mentally and physically exhausted, Smith said later in his explanation, using the states as a way to describe an honest day’s work.

That’s one way to use the term. The other is more literal. After a 0-5-1 start, the Timbers needed to be honest with themselves about what they were. And what they were at that time was not very good, in no small part because some of the things the team could control – the desire, effort, commitment to the task – were slipping. The team had to be honest about that, too. Every change has to start by acknowledging where you are.

When Savarese says that honesty is a key to improving on Saturday’s victory, he’s introducing another implication. The team is moving forward, but it’s not where he wants it to be, yet; it’s not where the team itself felt it could be, when the season started. The last two weekends have steadied the ship, but Savarese’s group still has work to do.

“We can always improve,” he said. “I think everything can improve. But I think the most important part is the mentality. The character is still there.”

Formation games

Seven games into the season, and the Portland Timbers have used three different starting formations: the 4-2-3-1 four times; the 5-3-2 twice; and the 4-4-2 once, with the team leveraging the new look to take three points in Columbus last Saturday. If you were to plot the effectiveness of the three formations on a spectrum, most of the 4-2-3-1 performance would fall near the bad end, the 5-3-2s toward the middle, with the lone 4-4-2 landing near good.

Coincidentally, though, if you could plot the team’s execution and effort along the same spectrum, you might get a similar outcome. The times the team has played 4-2-3-1 have coincided with the biggest concerns about performance and mentality. Those concerns diminished in the 5-3-2, and were non-existent in the 4-4-2.

There certainly is a correlation there, but what’s the causation? Are players performing better because of the formations they’re in? Certainly, that’s possible. But it’s also possible the players are merely playing better at certain times, worse at others, and the coincidence with changes in the formation comes down to something else. After all, each change of formation has come after a loss, when players’ focus and effort could be expected to improve, regardless.

For Savarese, it’s the mental aspects that matter most.

“I don’t think, here, it’s been a system problem,” Savarese said, of the team’s troubles. “Whatever system you play, it needs players to be engaged and be mentally focused – everybody pushing in the same direction … These past two weeks, everyone involved in the club has done a good job to make sure we put our minds where they need to be, and that’s shown in the performances.”

Some healthy skepticism might see this as a chicken-egg problem. Savarese knows which one’s which, though.

“Beside the fact that we can play a 4-4-2, 5-3-2, or any other formation that I can think of,” he said, “the important part, right now, is that the team is engaged, and everybody is contributing.”

What that means for the team’s formation in Toronto, who knows? Also, as Savarese says, there may be more important parts of the team to focus on, first.

Supporting the center backs

One area of the team that has seen in constant focus is the defense, which has conceded 18 times in seven games. While the Timbers no longer have the league’s worst defensive mark – Colorado, it’s your turn in that fetid mushpot – they’re also, through seven games, still looking for their first clean sheet of the season.

The process, however, has clearly improved, with even the nature of the three goals allowed of late hinting at a turnaround. A random deflection for open the score in Dallas? The penalty that followed? And the deep giveaway on a breakout throw that, this weekend, turned into an empty-net goal? Teams are no longer merely breaking down the Timbers in wide spaces, playing back in toward goal. Over the last two games, the mistakes have been more aberrational; and, potentially, easier to manage, going forward.

The center back pairing of Larrys Mabiala and Bill Tuiloma has been getting some deserved attention for the group’s progress, something that’s well-deserved given the undue blame center backs carried for the team’s early struggles. But just as that blame risked overlooking the team’s other problems, so does new praise risk ignoring the group’s other solutions.

“I think, sometimes, we have the tendency to look at center backs and defenders and blame them directly for some of the situations that they have to face,” Savarese explained. “The mistakes that we make defensively have to do with the entire team. The entire team is doing things better.”

As we discussed earlier this week, the right side of the defense has been shored up. As has the left. As has the midfield, in front of the defense. New combinations everywhere on the field, including central defense, have not only led to a marked improvement but also made it hard to isolate causes.

Regardless, the team has a formula that is working, now, one dedicated as much to the approach as the personnel. Perhaps Mabiala and Tuiloma, at the level they’re playing now, would have prevented the team’s defensive problems over the first month. Given where Portland is headed now, though, that’s an experiment the Timbers need not explore.

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