It’s hard to stay focused on Saturday’s game with June 1 so close, and we’re not even the ones who play the games. We don’t pack the bags, board the planes, or endure the travel. For us, “12 games on the road” is a cliché. For others, the three months leading into that home opener have turned into a lifestyle.
This weekend, though, that lifestyle starts to fade, with the Portland Timbers’ Saturday match at Talen Energy Field marking the end of the longest road trip in Major League Soccer history. When the team kickoffs against the Philadelphia Union on Saturday (4:30pm PT, ROOT SPORTS), they can also start counting down the seven days until a new era begins at Providence Park, even though the weekend’s biggest reward will be finally saying goodbye to life on the road.
“Playing 12 games away from home … it’s not easy, to be traveling, to be without your families,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, this week. “We know how difficult it is to play away games in MLS, but the guys have handled everything in a very good way. We had a rough start, but little by little, we found our way …”
One week out, coaches and players are already being asked: How much are you looking forward to the opener? In their answers you see that the event has become a reward, with the feeling of playing in front of the expanded home crowd providing a needed payoff for an arduous spring schedule.
“It’s going to be an exciting day …,” Savarese admitted. “We’re coming back home after a long road (trip), but the way the stadium’s looking, the construction – I’ve been seeing it every single day, the way the renovations have gone. It’s beautiful, being able to look up from the field, how the stadium has changed.”
First things first, though, are those 90 minutes on Saturday, ones that will feature an Eastern Conference leader looking to build on a surprisingly strong start. Here are three areas of focus for this weekend’s meeting with the Union, our KeyBank Scouting Report.
How much Fernandez?
Portland’s record signing wasted no time making a first impression, providing a goal 12 minutes into this MLS debut to help the Timbers claim a 1-1 draw last Wednesday in Houston. With another week-and-a-half spent in his new team, Brian Fernandez is expected by some to be in Saturday’s starting XI, even if Savarese wouldn’t be drawn into a commitment.
“Everybody could start,” he said, when asked about the potential for Fernandez in the lineup. Not ruling the possibility out, Savarese also praised what he saw from his new star in Houston.
“Brian came into the game and brought a lot of good things. He was able to give us a goal to tie the match, [and] he was a threat. He was difficult to manage [for the Dynamo], and that’s what we wanted.”
If Fernandez doesn’t start, he’ll probably be in a similar role to what we saw in Houston. Not much intrigue there, aside from the possibility of him adding to his goal total. The real intrigue comes when thinking about him in a potential starting role, and what that would do to the rest of the team.
When he was inserted in Houston, Fernandez came on as a forward, playing alongside striker Jeremy Ebobisse. Diego Valeri dropped into midfield and played at the tip of a diamond: Sebastian Blanco and Andrés Flores at its sides; Renzo Zambrano at its base. While that’s not the only way Savarese could leverage his new weapon, it showed one way Fernandez might be used.
Who steps in in midfield
For the second week in a row, the Timbers will be without their first-choice midfield, if you consider Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes to be those first choices. Over the last six games, that’s the direction Portland has gone, with only Chara’s suspension for yellow-card accumulation ahead of last week’s trip to Houston breaking up the duo’s first XI run.
Chara returns this week, but when he does, he’ll have to do so beside a new partner, if the team keeps its 4-4-2 look. Having yet to recover from a thigh injury incurred in Houston, Parades has been ruled out from Saturday’s game, leaving Savarese and Co. in search of solutions.
When forced to improvise last week, the coaching staff turned to Flores, who played alongside Zambrano as Portland earned their draw. With Chara back, it’s unlikely that tandem will get a second call, but it’s also possible the shape will have an entirely different look. If the Timbers continue with the midfield diamond we saw over Wednesday’s final half-hour, the most interesting part of it will be new roles, not old partnerships.
In that look, Blanco will likely occupy one of the two central “shuttling” spots – the sides of the diamond. Valeri would be at one tip, while Chara could play at the base or in the second shuttling role. That could come down to which of Flores or Zambrano rounds out the midfield, or other options, like Andy Polo and Eryk Williamson, come into Savarese’s view.
If the coaching staff does choose a midfield diamond (a 4-3-1-2), it will be the fourth different formation the Timbers have started in 12 games. Even beyond their personnel, Portland seems intent on staying flexible.
The new Philadelphia challenge
While teams like Atlanta United FC, New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls recover from their slow starts, Philadelphia sits atop the Eastern Conference, their plus-11 goal difference bested by only one team (Los Angeles FC) in Major League Soccer.
Few picked the Union to ascend to such heights this season, and a few months from now, they may find themselves in a lower spot. But seeing Philadelphia play makes it easy to form a theory as to why they’ve stepped forward.
Having taken a measured approach to their roster over head coach Jim Curtin’s era, the Union have given their players a chance to form an identity and grow together, as a unit. Mainstays like Alejandro Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin, and Andre Blake have become the team’s foundation, while acquisitions like Jamiro Monteiro, Kacper Przybylko, Sergio Santos and Marco Fabian have incrementally improved Philadelphia’s talent. A shift in formation from their long-used 4-2-3-1 to this year’s 4-3-1-2 has gotten the most out of the team’s intelligent, skilled midfield, while the maturation of defenders Jack Elliott and Austin Trusty has provided consistency in front of the team’s goal.
This is a winnable game for the Timbers. In the performances they’ve given in places like Dallas, Columbus, Toronto, Real Salt Lake and Houston, they’ve proven capable of giving good teams problems. But whereas in the past, teams could visit Chester, Pennsylvania, and get results without their best performances, opponents now have to be ready for a bigger challenge. Portland is going to have play as they did in those best moments to end their record road trip on a high note.