Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese opened his Monday press conference with a combination of reflection and ambition, casting his team’s recent struggles against the expectation of competing at the top of Major League Soccer’s standings.
“We’re still in a very good situation on the table,” he said, his team having taken one pointe in the first two games of MLS’s restarted regular season. “We have to just realize that and make sure we can get as many points as we can to continue to fight not only for the top of the [Western Conference] but for the Supporters’ Shield, which is where we have our aspirations and our target to be this year.”
Portland will enter Wednesday’s game at Providence Park against the LA Galaxy (7:30pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)) in fourth place in the Western Conference. Their 11 points in seven games leaves the team with a points-per-game ratio that’s tied for third in the conference. The team’s goal difference, though (goals scored minus goals allowed), is tied for eighth in the West, with the Timbers having given up two more goals (14) than they’ve scored (12).
Of greater concern is the team’s last two results. After winning the MLS is Back Tournament trophy in Orlando, Florida, Portland resumed MLS’s regular season with a 3-0 loss at home to the Seattle Sounders on August 23. Six days later, two goals conceded in second-half added time allowed Real Salt Lake to salvage a 4-4 draw.
“We have to be better at home,” Savarese said, his team now 1-2-1 this season at Providence Park. “It’s something that, since last year, we have to make sure we are stronger. We do have a lot of good moments in our play, but we don’t want to be a team that just [has] some good moments. We need to get the job done and the results that we need.”
The impetus goes beyond reversing a downturn in form. Though MLS is Back was a strange, perhaps one-off tournament, it did serve as validation. The Timbers’ expectation of competing for titles is reasonable.
But validation does not lead to results. Instead, it can cast a harsh light on them. Having proved they’re capable of winning a tournament like MLS is Back, the Timbers have created a context that’s more harsh on their last two results. The standard is higher after Orlando.
“The expectation is to make the playoffs,” team captain Diego Valeri explained, building toward his bottom line. “It’s to play every game and try to win every game. To get points. To secure a spot in the playoff and [go on] a run to win the MLS Cup.
“That’s our expectation, and we know that it is a long way to get it, and we build every game. Obviously the results against Seattle and even against Salt Lake, it wasn’t what we wanted. We have to improve a lot of things to become stronger and be able to [get] wins.”
Chief among those is the team’s defending. Though Portland’s goal prevention was strong in Orlando – with Savarese, on Monday, describing his defense as one of that tournament’s best – the Timbers failed to shut out an opponent during MLS is Back. The only clean sheet the team has kept during this season was in March versus expansion Nashville SC.
In the team’s first competitive minutes after Orlando, the defense looked good. The team allowed only one shot during the first half against Seattle, one that was taken from over 30 yards from goal. Since, Portland has allowed seven goals, including five after their games’ 70th minutes.
“Usually you judge the [defenders], and they need to be judged, because we’ve conceded too many goals,” Savarese said. “It’s something that you look at [it[, you have to say, we didn’t defend well. That’s why we conceded. But the reality is it’s not a situation that starts with the defenders or is the fault of one individual person. I believe it’s the fault of the entire team …
“It’s a mentality situation. Nothing more than that. We have spoken about it today, yesterday as well in our training. Because how can you probably be the best defensive team in the tournament in Orlando then come home and concede too many goals?”
As for Portland’s next opponent, the Galaxy will arrive at Providence Park in ninth place in MLS’ Western Conference. They lost to the Timbers in the teams’ opening game of MLS is Back and have lost their last three visits to Portland by a combined 9-0 margin (one game in MLS play; two in U.S. Open Cup). Though the Galaxy have won two games in a row, defeating rivals Los Angeles FC and the San Jose Earthquakes since the regular season’s return, they are 0-4-1 in their last five visits to Providence Park.
“The [emphasis] is still about improving some of the areas we need to improve and make sure that we get three points in these next games that we have,” Savarese said. “Especially at home, [winning] is especially important.”