Savarese, Wilkinson End of Year 2019
Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Timbers/Thorns

Silver linings, playoff regrets in focus as Wilkinson, Savarese move to 2021

Ten days after the Portland Timbers exited Major League Soccer’s 2020 postseason, the shootout loss they suffered at home to FC Dallas was still foremost on the minds of the team’s general manager and coach.

“Definitely, coming out from the MLS is Back Tournament after a great performance from the team we were still hungry, we were not satisfied,” is how Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese began his Thursday morning video conference. Over nearly 50 minutes, he and Portland’s President of Soccer, Gavin Wilkinson, took stock of what 2020 was looking forward to 2021. 

“In everybody’s mind, everyone involved, we didn’t get enough [from the 2020 season],” Savarese continued. “I think that’s why we're hungrier. We can’t wait for next year. We’re looking forward to the new challenges.”

The regret is understandable. From Wilkinson’s and Savarese’s points of view, Portland’s season ended after a game in which the Timbers “completely dominated” play, according to Savarese; in which, in Savarese’s words, Portland lost control of their destiny in “the only moment [FC Dallas] provided a threat;” before the cruelties of soccer’s ultimate judgment, a penalty-kick shootout, spelled the end of their season.

“While there's still a bitter taste in our mouths, I think the professionalism, the performance of the staff and the sacrifices of the staff and the players, and the performance of the players, was remarkable,” Wilkinson said, having said, “2020 as a whole [was] relatively successful.”

“And that's during a challenging year,” he said. “We look at it and say [managing the season] is actually an admirable trait for the club.”

That was the broader context to the memories that linger from Dallas. Amid a season stopped, detoured, and rebooted by the COVID-19 pandemic, both Wilkinson and Savarese lauded their team’s broader success, expressing pride at not only Portland’s triumph at the summer MLS Is Back Tournament but also in how the squad handled the responsibility of staying healthy.

“For me, the mentality in the locker room of all the players ...,” was the year’s greatest success, to Savarese. “The mentality goes with the discipline to make sure everyone sacrifices to avoid COVID.”

“When we dealt with what we dealt with in the challenging year,” Wilkinson said, “it is a strong, strong reflection of the club culture. It's a massive positive. And then when you start to look at it and say, OK, but we also won MLS is Back, and again, the way in which we managed that tournament -- the team's performance; the staff's performance -- to enable [the team] to be successful and win that tournament, I think it's huge.”

The more dour elements of 2020’s finish were also addressed on Thursday. At one point, Wilkinson joked that he would have liked the team to have spots for “four or five” Designated Players -- players who cost a flat fee against the salary cap, regardless of their actual salary. Two of the team’s three Designated Players suffered season-ending injuries during the resumed regular season, with only winger Yimmi Chará left healthy from a group that also included winger Sebastían Blanco and forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda.

Savarese also addressed an Achilles heel that emerged at the end of the season: the team’s defending. Though Portland finished second in MLS in goals, averaging two goals per game, the Timbers conceded 35 times in 23 matches. And in the final moments of regulation time against FC Dallas, the team’s late-match lapses cost them a place in the Western Conference semifinals.

“That’s one thing that I think we have to be better next year.,” Savarese said about his team’s goal prevention, eventually honing in on late-match concessions as well as defending on corner kicks. “Sometimes winning a match 6-3, yes, we’re proud of scoring so many goals. But [there were] too many [goals] against …

“It cost us not only the ability to compete for MLS Cup but also the Supporters’ Shield.”

Ahead of 2021, Wilkinson said Portland hopes to strengthen the team’s “wide areas defensively” ahead of 2021, as well as acquire a “young central defender.” Larrys Mabiala, according to Wilkinson, is in negotiations for a contract extension for the 2021 season, while the future of striker Felipe Mora, set to return to Liga MX’s Pumas with the expiration of his loan, is being discussed with his club, with Savarese calling the ongoing discussions, “positive.”

“[Mora] is a key piece to the team, to the club, and a well-liked player in the locker room,” Wilkinson said. “With us with Concacaf [Champions League] next year, there are multiple reasons why he would be a benefit to this organization.”

Wilkinson also said two trades have already been agreed to, but they can’t be announced until MLS’s trade window opens up in the middle of December. “This is something the [traded] players actually wanted, they were fully invested in, and we were able to solve that,” he explained. 

In addition, Wilkinson announced two players will not have their contract options for 2021 exercised by the club: midfielder Andrés Flores and fullback Chris Duvall.

“I'm very thankful to them for what they gave to the club,” Savarese said of Flores and Duvall. “Flores has been with me for many, many years. He is a class act ... as well as Duvall, who gave even more than he could give.”

For at least the next three months, comings and goings will define the Timbers’ offseason. But at some point in early 2021, the squad will return to the field, with the team’s place in the next Concacaf Champions League tournament, won at MLS Is Back, meaning preseason may come sooner for Portland than most.

“The challenges that COVID has presented for 2020 will be presented for 2021, as well,” Wilkinson explained, saying he was still unaware of when 2021’s Concacaf Champions League would begin. “We need to make sure we can manage those [challenges]. 

“We need the players sorted early. We need to players in a rhythm, and obviously, for me, the biggest challenge then becomes organizing preseason for a world that we don't know, and making sure that we as a club and technical staff and team are fully prepared.”

Even with an early return, this will be a longer offseason than usual. Since Savarese’s pre-2018-season arrival, Timbers seasons have tended to extend into November or December, picking up again in mid-January. This year, winter’s window may be wider. But through that view, the team can think about what 2020 was, what the season could have been, and how Portland soccer can get back to normal in 2021.

“This was [a season] that we reinforced the club culture that we have, which is incredible,” Wilkinson said. “Now the biggest thing we're missing is our fans.”

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