Giovanni Savarese couldn’t help but laugh at the schedule, one that’s sending his Portland Timbers on their third arduous stretch of the season.
The first came at the onset: 12 straight road games demanded by construction at Providence Park. U.S. Open Cup helped create the next challenge, forcing four games in 12 days between Junes 19 and 30, with the knockout competition again a culprit in this, the team’s latest taxing spell.
Beginning Sunday in New York (3:30pm PT, FS1), the Timbers will play five games in 15 days – a span that will take them from east coast to west, then back home for two games before a July 21 match in Seattle. Among the 10 days off the team has in that stretch, three will involve travel, giving the team precious few days on the training ground before the last week of the month.
“Coming home from 12 matches away, we expected something a little easier,” Savarese joked on Wednesday, during his weekly session with Portland’s media, “but it’s gotten a little bit more difficult.”
Part of the difficulty will be the quality of opposition. The Sounders await at the end of this stretch, with another match with Los Angeles FC coming Wednesday in Open Cup. But first is a team which, on a points-per-game basis, is the best in the Eastern Conference. New York City FC is the only team in Major League Soccer who has yet to suffer a second loss.
It creates a dynamic reminiscent of last season, when NYCFC’s spring visit to Providence Park ended with the first trademark victory of the Savarese era. That’s where we start with this week’s KeyBank Scouting Report.
Remembering the breakthrough
The Timbers were coming off their first victory under Savarese when NYCFC arrived, doing so with an undefeated record and the top spot in the Eastern Conference. This was in April of 2018, when Patrick Vieira was still on the sidelines, and David Villa was still dictating games up top. The third year was looking like a charm for New York.
Savarese was confident, though. He knew the team well from his time in New York, with the NASL’s Cosmos. There were still doubts after Portland’s previous game, where Minnesota United FC almost surged to a result in the second half, but the Timbers’ head coach thought his team was ready. It was time for a breakthrough.
What followed was what the sport often refers to as a tactical masterclass, with Savarese referencing his Italian roots with a textbook example of a modern catenaccio. The Timbers finished the match with only 25.6 percent possession but a 3-0 edge on the scoreboard, their plan having used New York’s ball-dominant ways against them.
Very little of what happened last spring will matter Sunday at Yankee Stadium, but April 22, 2018, may always be an important day in Timbers’ history. It’s when Portland got its first true glimpse of what Savarese and his staff can do.
A game of goals: Timbers version
Until somebody keeps him off the scoresheet, Brian Fernandez is going to be the most important part of every Timbers preview. He’s scored six times in his first five MLS games, nine in the seven he’d played overall. The team’s newest acquisition is already in the league’s record books. The next story will be when he’s shutout.
That might be coming soon. Fernandez’s pace (and consistency) are too much to expect any player to maintain, but over the past few games – from the LA Galaxy in Open Cup to home against Houston, then again at home against FC Dallas – we’re starting to see opposing teams adjust. The respect is building, as is the caution. At some point, a team will keep Fernandez off the board.
Thankfully for the Timbers, Fernandez has not been a one-man show. Though he’s scored nine times in his seven appearances, the team has scored 17 times, overall, when he’s on the field. On one hand, Fernandez has been responsible for more than half of the team’s goals; on the other, the team is far from being shutdown when somebody else has to step up.
The time for others to compensate for Fernandez will come. At some point, teams will start devoting so much attention to the new Timbers forward, their balance will be off, and others will have their chance to thrive. If that happens on Sunday, expect Diego Valeri, Sebastián Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse to get open looks.
A game of goals: NYCFC version
New York City’s record still shows the scars of their early-season scoring woes. The 6-1-8 mark not only reflects the fewest losses in MLS but also the most draws. Through the first five games of the season, Domènec Torrent’s team had only scored four goals.
Then Heber came along, with the Brazilian attacker helping offset the winter loss of Villa. Valentin Castellanos began getting on the scoresheet, and the learning curve of Alexandru Mitrita started flattening out. New York is averaging almost two goals a game, now, with their 30 goals (in 16 games) ranking third in the Eastern Conference.
Over their last nine games, NYCFC has scored 25 times, but on Sunday, they’ll have to do so without the player who sparked this surge. Thanks to hamstring injury, Heber will be sidelined against the Timbers, his ailment leaving him out for a third game in a row.
There’s still plenty of firepower there. Maxi Moralez is a deserving MLS All Star thanks to his six goals and 11 assists, while Castellanos, Mitrita and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi have combined for 13 goals, this season. NYCFC may be without their most potent scorer, but if recent returns are any indication, their early, Heber-less struggles are long behind them.