In the time since the Portland Timbers’ 3-2, Wednesday night loss to the LA Galaxy, a pair of themes have emerged around that night’s lineup decisions. First, in making 11 changes to his starters, head coach Giovanni Savarese was giving his most-used players a needed rest. Second, in the players who did walk out for the opening kickoff, the Timbers believed they chose a team capable of delivering the desired result.
“I personally felt it was a good opportunity to be able to put a team that could compete,” Savarese said on Friday, explaining his choices both in terms of his starters’ needs and the contributions their teammates have made to earn their time. “I believe that the team we put together still competed against a Galaxy team, and that I felt at home, we could make substitutions.”
Lineup choices always matter. They may be the most impactful decisions a head coach makes around a game. But the context around those decisions always matters, too. No decisions get made independent of the schedule’s other demands, the goals for a match and, perhaps most importantly, the impact those decisions have on a players’ health.
“The three matches that we have, they're going to be on turf,” Savarese said, alluding to this week’s schedule. “For those that have played on turf, it is more difficult to be able to endure, because you start having back pain, and your legs get a little bit heavier. We wanted to make sure we made these substitutions at the right time, and we made the right decision.”
For those trying to evaluate a team’s decisions, there is always a fog around player health. Teams tend to be relatively forthcoming with injury information, particularly given such information can be seen as personal, or otherwise private. But because of that privacy, the true nature of a player’s status is rarely known. It’s impossible to tell when an athlete has entered sports’ proverbial “red zone.”
“When you’re not inside [a team], you don’t understand certain things,” Savarese said, when asked about that fog. “When you haven't played, you don't understand certain things. It's normal. It's normal for people to want to see a lineup they’re more used to seeing.
“But the guys, we have to remember, we're playing constantly. Only two, three days of rest, and that's it. We're coming from a high-demand tournament in Orlando, and some of the players need time to make sure that they are healthy, that they stay strong.”
Sebastián Blanco was one of those players. Along with midfielder Diego Chara and goalkeeper Steve Clark, the Timbers attacker was one of three players to start every game at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando. And like Chara and Clark, he had started both games of Major League Soccer’s post-tournament return.
Chara and Clark didn’t play on Wednesday, but Blanco did, coming on in the second half and nearly scoring on a shot that went off the Galaxy cross bar. For him, the Timbers are, “a professional team, [and] the manager makes the decisions,” though he understood Savarese’s reasoning with Wednesday’s choices.
“The team needed to rest,” Blanco said. “Those players who were on the field [were ready] to play that match. If the result had been different, we would be having a very different conversation right now.”
That’s where the other theme from Wednesday kicks in. Though the Timbers’ depth was a reason why the team had success in Orlando, rotating all 11 starters out of the team is a different test of that team’s depth. Instead of isolated starters being spelled, the entire second rung of Portland’s depth chart was called upon in unison.
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For Blanco, his counterfactual – his “if the result had been different” – was more than a hypothetical. If late decisions about waved-off goals had been different, questions of Portland’s depth would have a more favorable context.
“We scored four goals in this match, two of which were called off,” he reminded, “but it's a matter of continuing working. Not everything happens the way you want it to. We have to continue with the rest that we have and do the best we can in the coming matches.”
Another Timbers starter, midfielder Eryk Williamson, has been on both sides of the squad rotation dynamic within the past six months. In March, he was a backup in Portland’s midfield, earning late-match minutes as Cristhian Paredes was selected in late winter’s starting lineups. He won the starting positions beside Chara ahead of MLS is Back, and while he’d held onto the role into the restarted regular season, Williamson remains cognizant of the competition within the roster.
“We have to look at the depth we have,” he said. “We felt confident putting that team out there. It gives different guys a little bit of a rest. I know that mentally, coming back and getting back into things was an interesting kind of transition ...
“You have to give credit to the guys who went out there and worked hard. At the same time, it's a result that we dropped. Moving forward, it's good to see that the depth of the team is not too far off from the first group.”
Blanco’s and Williamson’s words are like those you’d hear from most players. Teammates usually don’t speak ill of each other, a factor that contributes to the fog around lineup decisions. Whether questions be about health or the quality of a team’s backups, information is often at a premium.
“My biggest thing I would say,” Williamson began, when asked about that fog, “you look at the rotation we've done throughout the tournament, throughout the seasons that the players have been around, it's not a drop off when guys are switched in. With guys like Seba, guys like Chara playing next to them, it's not a huge drop off. We just got to look at it that way.
“Everyone is up to the level,” he said. “Everyone can be starting the game. It's just ultimately what the best group is for that game or the team we're playing against.”
The best group for Sunday against the Sounders (7pm PT, ROOT SPORTS) will likely be much different than Wednesday’s against the Galaxy. That was part of the point of Savarese’s last lineup. Both in body and mind, the Timbers’ first 11 needed a reset before Seattle.
“Now,” Savarese said, “we have a very healthy group mentally, physically to endure for longer.”