Seven days before a new chapter of Portland Timbers history opens at Providence Park, the team’s recent, record signing is crafting a history of his own. Scoring his second and third goals in green and gold, Brian Fernandez made his first start for Portland an unforgettable one, vaulting the Timbers to a two-goal lead before halftime and providing the spark to the team’s 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union.
“The guys were great,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, his praise going beyond one target. “We had a rough start … [The Union] brought some difficult things, but we defended well, and we were clinical in our moments going forward.”
Fernandez’s performance will, undoubtedly, be what we remember most from Saturday’s win, and it’s a sign of his significance that his goals first overshadowed what, at the start of the season, we assumed would be Saturday’s most important part. After 12 games on the road, 13 weeks without a home game, the Timbers can finally look forward to a game on home turf, with the coming week destined to end in their own beds instead of a shared hotel room.
“We can’t wait to be there,” Savarese offered, “but it’s important that we stay focused, and what we need to do is stay focused in our plan and enjoy the moment. It’s been long, but we’re finally going to be able to be back home.”
When Los Angeles FC visits Goose Hollow next weekend on June 1 (7:30pm PT, ESPN2), they’ll be facing a team that survived their road run at better than a point-per-game pace, closing the last half of their stretch with a 4-1-1 record and a victory over the team that was on top of the Eastern Conference. Having changed formation, shook up some of their starters, and added a new element of danger in attack, the Timbers are already applying the lessons of March and April. When Saturday’s home opener kicks off, they should be ready to leverage the home-heavy, final two-thirds of their schedule.
That mindset, however, is better left for later this week. For now, let’s take a moment to embrace We We’ll Remember from Portland’s fourth win of the 2019 season.
The early shift
Ahead of Saturday’s game, a lot of the tactical speculation centered around how Portland would match up with the midfield diamond Philadelphia’s played all season – speculation fueled by the Timbers playing their own diamond at the end of last week’s game in Houston. Midway through the first half, that speculation had given way to a conclusion, with the Union finding too many empty spaces around Portland’s midfield.
It’s not often Savarese makes an quick change to his formation, but in dropping forward Jeremy Ebobisse to left midfield, moving Diego Valeri up into the forward line, the Timbers’ boss quickly moved away from this 4-3-1-2, back to the formula that’s fueled the team’s recent run. The return of the 4-4-2 blunted the Union’s momentum, eventually providing the platform for the team’s response.
“We had to change a couple of things to make sure that we closed some spaces,” Savarese explained. “The guys adapted right away to what we needed, and then, in the second half, we sacrificed.”
It may be a stretch to say that, years and years into the future, we’ll remember the team shifting from a 4-3-1-2 to a 4-4-2. Even reciting those successions of numbers in our heads is enough to inspire boredom. But over the next couple of days, we should keep the change in mind, perhaps wondering what would have happened if Portland hadn’t chosen a new course.
How real is Fernandez
One of the best things about the early moments of baseball season is people taking the year’s first results, prorating them over Major League Baseball’s interminable campaign, and pretending like some junior-high math makes the outcomes more believable. “He’s on pace for 324 home runs,” some might say, ironically, when a player hits two on opening day. “Wouldn’t it be insane if,’ insert player name here, “finishes with 486 steals?”
Yes, yes it would, but it’s still fun to be insane, if only for a moment. For example, did you know that Brian Fernandez, with three goals in his first 115 MLS minutes, would score 79.8 over the course of a full MLS season? Seems entirely possible, right? Not really, but it’s still cool to say things like, “He could score 51 goals,” if you wanted to do the math with his games played instead of minutes.
“He is very happy to be here, and he wants to show that on the field,” Valeri said, after the game, also taking a moment to allude to the home opener. “He is ready to play at home. He wants so see our crowd.”
Right now, exaggerating small samples may be the fairest way to describe what Fernandez is doing. There’s no point implying what we’re seeing is something other than remarkable. Scoring every 38.3 minutes thus far, Fernandez is performing at a level nobody can reasonably expect is real. But based on what we’ve see thus far, how real will Fernandez be, when he comes back to earth?
Valeri in form, even before the goal
Beyond the Timbers’ newest star, there are plenty of other performances of note. Andy Polo delivered a great ball on the first goal, Diego Chara was, well, Diego Chara, while Jorge Villafaña put in his second-straight positive performance since returning to the starting lineup.
Not to be overlooked, though, is the play of the team’s captain, who was having a strong match before his late, game-sealing goal.
“I think it was very important,” Valeri said of his goal. “Every goal is important, but the third one finished the game. They were pushing. They were pushing hard. We had a couple of chances, but we needed that third goal.”
Valeri’s early-season struggles became a topic on this site during his team’s early downturn, but at the end of Portland’s initial road trip, El Maestro is returning home with three goals and seven assists in 12 games, putting him on pace for a fifth-career double-digit assist season.
Some of that is owed to MLS’ aberrational second-assist rule, with three of Valeri’s helpers coming on next-to-last balls. Set pieces, too, have elevated his totals. But to see Valeri’s comfort at Talen Energy Field was to see a player that was little like his early season self. Just as the Timbers have shrugged off the March and April rust, so too is Valeri approaching his normal self.
The record when they’re done
Perhaps second to only Fernandez, the thing we remember most about Saturday’s match will be one number: 14. Even since this season’s schedule came out, fans have speculated about what would be an acceptable low-end number of points to achieve after game 12. Would high single digits be enough? Would a point-per-game constitute a successful road spell.
The Timbers return home better than that. Six weeks ago, when Portland sat at 0-5-1, something closer to seven or eight points would have been considered survival. Instead, the Timbers pushed their final tally to 14 with Saturday’s result.
“The past six, seven games, the team changed gears,” Savarese said. “We’ve been facing every team in a different way, and the quality has been very good. Once we [started going] into games with a good fight, we’ve been able to achieve good things.”
The season’s work is far from done, and in sitting on 1.17 points per game, the team should remember that, if not for a terrible start, they could be returning with much more. But given the MLS history of teams’ early road spells, the Timbers can be happy with the number of points they’ve won.