Giovanni Savarese, training, 7.5.20
Photo by Richard Farley

Win in hand, Timbers look to build and improve against Houston

ORLANDO, Fla. – When the Portland Timbers’ group draw for the MLS is Back Tournament was set, the Houston Dynamo game looked like the reprieve. Los Angeles FC finished last season with Major League Soccer’s best record. The LA Galaxy had won a playoff game on the road last fall. They were the other members of the group. The Dynamo, however? After missing the playoffs in 2019, changing coaches, and undergoing significant changes to their roster, Houston seemed like Group F’s “other.”

Monday night told us otherwise. Though LAFC eventually came back to earn a 3-3 draw in the teams’ tournament opener, the Dynamo took a two-goal lead into the evening’s second half, building their lead through something that’s become tried and true. Attacking midfielder Memo Rodríguez scored twice. Winger Alberth Elis scored once. Prolific attacker Darwin Quintero, brought in from Minnesota United FC during the offseason, was in head coach Tab Ramos’s team, as was forward Mauro Manotas, who has typically been Houston’s most-potent scorer.

The Dynamo have always been able to attack, which means in a tournament so early in teams’ evolutions, they represent a particular threat. If your defense hasn’t had enough minutes to figure itself out, and if your midfield doesn’t help slow Houston’s counter attack, the Dynamo can put a big number on the scoreboard.

“They’re stronger this year,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said, this week. “They have good pieces … It’s a team that is disciplined. It’s a team that has experienced players. And on top, there are a couple of individual players that are quick on the counter, that are crafty, that can be very dangerous in different ways. We have to be prepared.”

Part of that preparation is putting the Dynamo’s pre-tournament billing aside. With the two Los Angeles-based teams in their group, Portland’s path to the second round projected a win over Houston as a near-must. Now, that’s not so certain. The Timbers navigated the Galaxy without dropping a point, winning on Monday night, 2-1. With LAFC missing their best player, reigning league MVP Carlos Vela, and still adapting in defense after the offseason departure of U.S. international Walker Zimmerman, the group’s reigning favorite may also be more vulnerable than previously thought. Ultimately, pre-tournament predictions don’t matter much, now.

What matters more is the Timbers’ progression forward. The victory over LA showed the team had improved since March, when a loss to Minnesota before a victory over Nashville SC combined for two unimpressive performances. Defeating the Galaxy was the team’s strongest showing in 2020, but it probably wasn’t a level that can win this tournament. Just as other teams will build on their tournament’s first results, so too must the Timbers see their first win as a stepping stone to something more.

“Overall, it was a very good performance,” Savarese said, before asking, “Can it be better? Definitely. But I saw a lot of the things we’ve been working on, on the field.”

On Saturday night, it may be up to a new set of players to carry on the Timbers’ work. That’s because the team has only four days of rest between games. Under normal conditions, that would be a tight turnaround, but the Timbers hadn’t played a game in four months before facing the Galaxy. And they have an equally short turnaround after the Houston game, ahead of their group-stage finale against LAFC.

“In a normal season, you can prepare game by game,” Savarese explained on Thursday, when asked about the importance of squad depth in the tournament. “Most of the time, you have a week to prepare for matches. Sometimes you play at home. That’s an advantage. Sometimes away from home, and a mix, back and forth, through the entire season gives you the tranquility to know that you can work on peaking at the right times, and make sure that you can make the playoffs.

“[MLS is Back] is completely different. This is getting ready now and ready to perform, and you have to use your whole team, because it’s very important. You only have four days, right now, from one game to another, and the games are very demanding. The games bring difficulties because of the weather. The reality is that it is completely different from a regular season.”

Eryk Williamson was a surprise starter alongside Diego Chara in the Timbers’ Monday midfield. Will he get the call again over Cristhian Paredes or his second-half substitute, Andy Polo? Likewise, few expected Marvin Loría to get the call over Yimmi Chara at right wing. Does the Colombian go into the first XI against Houston?

You could ask questions of almost anybody in the Timbers’ team. With Dario Zuparic collecting two yellow cards on Monday, we know at least one change is coming. Where more may happen will come down to individual fitness and Portland’s long-term outlook. This tournament may be completely different than a regular season, but at this point of the competition, the Timbers still have to think about more than one result.

They have to think about getting to the second season, which in normal times would be the playoffs. Now, it’s this tournament’s knockout round. Win on Saturday, Portland will be there. Anything else, and that group-stage finale against LAFC becomes even more important.