Whatever concerns there were about the Portland Timbers losing their momentum seem like marks of paranoia, now. With the team’s attacking depth on full display, the Timbers matched their MLS high for goals in a game on Wednesday night, defeating LA Galaxy, 6-3, in Carson, California, to claim their fourth win in six games.
The victory leaves the Timbers in sole possession of second place in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference, three points behind West-leading Seattle Sounders FC.
“Overall, a very strong performance from a group that came here with a good mentality, with a desire to get three points,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said, having mentioned that his team’s attack “could have been a little bit better” than the six goals. Still, he saw the victory as “a big statement from the guys.”
Whether Portland could continue their strong play after an unexpectedly long break was in focus ahead of Wednesday’s game, but with their early control of the match, the Timbers quickly alleviated those concerns. Instead, the team opened the scoring through Felipe Mora in the 13th minute, doubled their lead in the 23rd thanks to Jeremy Ebobisse, and increased their lead to 3-1 shortly after halftime via Diego Valeri. Any concern rust had set in after Saturday’s match against the Colorado Rapids was postponed proved ill-founded well before intermission.
The Galaxy would again reduce the lead to one shortly after Valeri’s score, but in response, Portland broke the game open. Mora scored his second of the night at the hour mark before, heading home a short-range rebound, Larrys Mabiala put his team up, 5-2. By night’s end, with the help of a second Ebobisse goal, the Timbers had their second six-goal match in four games, matching their output from September 19’s 6-1 win at the San Jose Earthquakes.
“Ultimately, we have a team of 10-15 attackers – whoever is on the field; whoever is on the bench – that knows where they're supposed to be and are able to make plays,” Ebobisse explained after his second two-goal night as a professional. “Tonight we made six [plays], and hopefully we can keep scoring like that. Because if we do, we're going to win a lot of games.”
Over the course of the Timbers’ recent surge, it’s become clear the team’s attacking depth will be a major strength, with all of Mora, Yimmi Chara and Jaroslaw Niezgoda having now fully settled into the team after their winter arrivals. The most remarkable part about that depth, though, may be the fact that one piece is missing. The best player at this summer’s MLS is Back Tournament, Sebastián Blanco, was lost for the season after tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament on September 6 at Seattle. As strong as the Timbers’ attack has been over the last month, it’s producing without one of its most dangerous parts.
In Blanco’s absence, Valeri has stepped up. His seven goals are tied for the team lead with Ebobisse, who, even with the shortened campaign, is on pace for a second-straight double-digit-goal season. Mora, a late preseason addition, is up to six in 2020, with Chara and Niezgoda each adding three goals. In total, Portland is up to 33 goals on the season, good for third in the league – a total that’s been fueled by the team’s depth in attack, not one standout scorer.
“I think the training and the head coach has helped a lot – especially helping me with the language,” Mora said, when asked about the attack’s cohesion. “But in terms of the players, we've gotten to know each others' movements well, and thankfully, that's resulting in goals from me that can help the team. But also, that's a credit to the help I'm getting from [my teammates], because without that, I wouldn't be able to score these goals.”
There is the matter of the team’s defense giving up three goals, the last two of which drew Savarese’s criticism. On the, he first gave credit to Julian Araujo, whose long distance strike was “one situation that you have to give it to” the player, he said. From LA’s other goals, the Timbers needed “to be a little bit tighter and not allow the second and third goals to come in,” with Savarese admitting his team needed “to make sure we continue to work.”
As teams engage in that work, they develop specific strengths, though not always unique ones. For example, over the last decade of MLS’s Designated Player era, star power has been a good indicator of a team’s ceiling. Still, various contenders over that time have leveraged other strengths to stay competitive. Sometimes it’s a specific style or mentality. Sometimes it’s a more even distribution of talent across the roster.
For the last three years, the Timbers have opted for the latter approach, but as the acquisitions of this offseason imply, talent versus depth does not have to be an either-or scenario. Unquestionably, the 2020 Timbers have more depth in attack than at any point in club history, but the talent of that attack deserves more than an afterthought. Valeri is a former league MVP. Ebobisse is a United States international. Mora was close to joining his national team, Chile’s, for this international break, while Chara nearly made Colombia’s team for the last World Cup.
These aren’t redundant talents, either. Valeri’s playmaking and ability to be a focal point in attacking midfield is unique, as is Ebobisse's versatility, as is Chara’s explosive speed. Even as pure strikers, Niezgoda and Mora are distinct. Mora’s holdup play in front of defense and ability to find the poacher’s spaces in the penalty area is different from Niezgoda’s threat running in behind or stretching a defense horizontally with movement in the attacking third.
“They’re options because they’re doing their job,” Savarese said of his attack, “and they’re able to play with the [intelligence] that we ask them to provide.
“Whoever comes in is able to perform. So we saw Mora, [and] Jebo [Ebobisse] playing a little bit wide but coming in as a second striker. We saw Diego Valeri’s unbelievable goal. What class to be able to score that goal. And then Jaro [Niezgoda] was dangerous when he came in, with Yimmi as well …
“For me, it’s important we continue this way, that we continue to work. The only way that we can keep improving is by continuing to work and sacrifice.”
Perhaps, though, this adulation for the team’s attack is premature. After all, there are eight games to go in the regular season, which is really a run-up to the games that count most. As late spring of the Timbers’ 2019 season reminded us, just because a team’s trajectory says one thing early doesn’t mean those trends will continue late. The Timbers’ 2020 squad has to maintain this course.
But as a blueprint, this attack has a way to persist. Especially in a world with five substitutes per game. Especially in a world where thinner squads may get worn down. Even in the playoffs, when coaching staffs have more time and incentive to implement very specific solutions, the Timbers’ weapons should be a strength. Opponents may need multiple game plans to deal with Portland’s options.
For now, those options are fueling a climb up the Western Conference. And with the first of nine games in 32 days done, those options will need to keep producing if Portland’s to stay its course.