BEAVERTON, Ore. – Portland Timbers practice has been different, this week. It would be insane if it wasn’t. After six games, seven weeks without a victory to open the 2019 Major League Soccer season, last year’s Western Conference champions have taken consecutive wins at Columbus Crew SC and Toronto FC, teams that sit among the top six in the opposing conference. Now returning from the road with the season back on track, the team finally has something to smile about.
“We are very happy about the last couple of results,” team captain Diego Valeri said, on Wednesday. “We reacted really well after a stretch of losses … We did it in a good way, and we want to maintain that.”
That’s been evident all week. Training remained intense and focused during the team’s losing run, but those qualities are now accompanied by a joy that had become scarce around Beaverton’s Timbers Training Center. The tension of heightened stakes, combined with the weight of obligation, means laughs and smiles come with a sense of guilt. It’s not that it’s wrong to find some levity amid a challenge. The guilt comes from not knowing whether those around you are even in the mood.
Now, that mood has changed, something that was no more evident than in the opening moments of Thursday’s session. Honoring assistant coach Miles Joseph’s birthday, the team broke into two lines to from a tunnel, through which all new arrivals and birthday celebrants are obligated to pass, running a gauntlet of slaps, prods, and well-placed boots. One of the most-liked members of the Timbers’ group, Joseph saw an unprecedentedly large tunnel form, drawing in training staff, groundkeepers, and other Training Center personnel. The time it took to break through surely set a new team mark.
“Everyone’s very, very happy …,” defender Larrys Mabiala admitted. “This training session today, we could see everyone laughing, but still working very hard. But at the same time, laughing. The quality of the session was very good.
“It’s good to be in this moment, and we just want to keep working the same way. It’s much easier to work in these conditions than when you’re under pressure.
Tunnels have no joy when the team is in a slump. Camaraderie gets defined by empathy, and then concern. Instead of wondering what triumphs come next, players work to make sure the current challenge stops. Tunnels become things that have to be done.
Things are different now. For at least one more week, the Timbers are back on course. Now, it’s up to them to make sure the joy continues. Saturday, they travel to face Real Salt Lake (6pm PT, ROOT SPORTS).
Sticking with what’s worked?
After two straight games playing a 4-4-2 formation, and it’s hard to see the Timbers abandoning what’s worked. Those may prove famous last words – Savarese was not shy about changing things up over much of last season – but given the team’s success over the last two-plus games, it’s hard to see Portland getting too clever with this weekend’s shape.
“Tactics are secondary, always,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, on Wednesday. “I always say that. It’s the spirit and the mentality that are more important.
The team needed to get players on the field who were going to work for each other. The 4-4-2 fits that group. There were also a series of strengths and weaknesses that demanded balance. Those relationships fit nicely into the current approach.
“Against Toronto, not only were we able to defend well and be a good defensive team with a block that wasn’t all the way deep,” Savarese explained, while still emphasizing the mentality of his group. “We didn’t park the bus. We were just difficult to be broken down.
“When we had the ball we were able to manage the ball, to possess, to unbalance the opposition. And Toronto is a very good team. More credit to the guys for the game that they executed.”
There’s another balance the team has to heed, though – between respecting what’s worked and wanting to evolve. Coupling the “honest effort” Savarese’s alluded to with complementary players has gotten the Timbers back on track, for now, but the standard for 2018 wasn’t merely “on track.” This team wanted to contend for everything the league had to offer, and while two road wins in a row over quality competition is impressive, it’s impressive for April. As the calendar keeps moving, Portland will have to find new ways to evolve.
“For me, we just have to continue to maintain the same spirit, be honest to the job that we do and we have done, and continue to improve,” Savarese said, “because there are areas where we have to become better.”
That may not mean this weekend’s formation changes, but as Savarese explained on Wednesday, moving forward is still a goal. At some point, that may mean breaking away from the current formation, even if it doesn’t feel like that point is now.
The extra time at home
One thing that will change this week is the Timbers’ routine, even if only slightly; even if life on the road continues.
Entering final month of their prolonged road start, Portland will get a break from East Coast trips. Matches in Utah and, next week, British Columbia mean shorter flights, which means more time at home – which means, in this gauntlet of flight after flight that’s defined the Timbers’ last three months, a relative reprieve.
“It’s very important,” Mabiala said, of the time at home. “It’s very, very important to me, at least …
“I love to stay home. I don’t like to be far away from my house. Even when I’m in Portland, I’m just staying home. I don’t do very many things (away from home). Sleeping. Taking care of the kids. To me, [being at home] is very, very important.”
How much stuff like this matters, who knows? Major League Soccer hasn’t had enough trips of this length to make any sample worthwhile, while few other leagues can mirror MLS’ demands of the road. Maybe the team got into a rhythm, staying away from home last week, and being back closer to their real lives will throw players off?
It’s all speculation that can’t be proven. The one thing that’s certain: This week and next will offer the road-weary some more time at home. Whether that translates to wins likely comes down to how well Portland applies the lessons from their slog.
The games that turned the 2018 season
This year’s Real Salt Like is different, if ever-so-slightly so. They’ve added a Designated Player at forward with the signing of Liberian international Sam Johnson. Fullback Donny Toia has returned to the team that brought him into the league. Nedum Onuoha will play his first full season in Utah. The team’s style is the same, as is their shape, in large part, but there are some important differences between this year’s RSL and last’s.
Consider that box checked, because once you do, you can get back to remembering what happened last season. In 2018, the Timbers and Real Salt Lake were kept apart until the season’s final four weeks. Once there, the teams played back-to-back matches. Despite an eye-opening 3-2 loss to Minnesota two weeks before, Portland rebounded with two wins, a 7-2 combined scoreline, and momentum that marked the start of their Cup-reaching run.
“It was a turning point, for us,” Savarese admitted. “Playing against Real Salt Lake and getting the results, playing the way we played allowed us to lift the confidence and be able to give us what we needed to get all the way to the final.”
“That was a very important turning point, for sure, but this game is completely different. It doesn’t matter if they have a lot of the same players. This game is completely different. I’m sure that their approach is going to be different, for their part, so we expect different things.”
RSL is such a young team, they may have learned from what happened last season. And the Timbers? Well, it may be too early to say they’ve returned to their 2018 selves. But the lessons of last year still inform what, right now, we think of these teams, if ever so slightly.
Then, the Timbers seemed to have RSL’s number. But did that number expire at some point this offseason?