SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – Preseason games come with specific objectives for coaches, many of which, in a season’s first stages, come down to fitness and the team’s approach. From beyond the locker room and coach’s offices, that makes preseason games difficult to judge. Final scores aren’t bottom lines. Meeting team objectives are.
According to Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese, Portland met both standards on Saturday. Facing Costa Rican hosts, Deportivo Saprissa, at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Amaya, the visitors got goals on each side of halftime – one each from captain Diego Valeri and Timbers 2 midfielder Ken Krolicki – to earn a 2-1 victory in the team’s first competitive action of the preseason.
“For us, it worked out really well,” Savarese said, “because it was what we need: a very competitive match. I saw a lot of good things already for week two [of the preseason] ... so, all around, a very important game for us to continue to develop.”
Savarese selected a starting-caliber lineup to open a first half where his team’s press quickly pinned Saprissa. When the Costa Ricans were able to establish control beyond their defensive third, Portland’s transition game threatened them, even if preseason rust kept the Timbers from finishing their counters. In time, a Saprissa side under pressure was forced into a foul just beyond their penalty area, allowing Valeri to score from a free kick from just beyond the box.
While happy with his effort, Valeri’s reaction to his goal highlighted the tension between preseason results and the true objectives beneath them.
“It’s good to score goals and to start getting confidence, and obviously to keep working on the [fitness], which is the side [of the game] we really want to work on in the preseason …” he explained. “Obviously, if you score goals, if you win games, it’s always better, because [that’s why] we play, too.”
Portland waned over the course of the first period but still reached halftime with a lead, one that was equalized roughly half-way through the second 45 when Saprissa converted a rebound. Soon after, thanks to Dairon Asprilla’s ability to break down the left side of the hosts’ defense, as well as Tomás Conechny's backheel assist, Krolicki scored his first goal as a Timber, slotting home a ball sent through the penalty area to finish from eight yards out.
Krolicki nearly added an assist near the end of the half, his cutback from the byline intercepted as he tried to find Academy forward Tega Iboka with what would prove the last close call of the game. Though the team’s underlying performance was more important than the result, the result still went the way of Portland.
“Most of all, everybody is committed ...,” Savarese offered, as a bottom line. “I saw the guys today really commit to it, united, and performing well with the ball. The moments that didn’t have the ball, we sacrificed to make sure that we tried to win it back right away. We played a little bit higher [defensive] line with the starting team. It was very good. So, for our first match of the preseason, [I’m] very pleased.”
As expected, the preseason’s first full game featured a noticeable amount of offseason rust, with much of the intricacy the Timbers seemed to imagine failing to come through on the ball. The fitness levels, too, aren’t at regular-season levels, yet – something that may only come through more competitive games.
The positives, though, were in the team’s cohesion, specifically in the team’s work without the ball over the game’s first 20 to 25 minutes. Though two new players, Felipe Mora and Yimmi Chara, were debuting amid the team’s front six – and Dario Zuparic was also taking his Portland bow in central defense – there were few times when the team’s pressing was out of sync. When the team wanted to wait, everybody waited in unison. Likewise, when player a reacted to a trigger and forced play, the team responded behind them.
Whether that’s truly a positive depends on what the plan was in the locker room. It will also depend on the coaches’ verdicts are after they break down film. The postgame reactions, though, came in with passing grades. But it the words of the team’s head coach, captain, or the more casual reactions as players left the field, game one of preseason has kept the team on course.