What Are They All About? Portland Timbers
Another bump in the road. This past weekend the Chicago Fire had a bye week as most of the teams around them in the standings played through the international fixture window. While it gave them time to rest and recuperate after their loss to Minnesota, seeing their nearest rivals pulling further away may have dealt a mental blow to Veljko Paunovic and his charges. With zero points from their first two encounters and a tough schedule of matches on the docket for April, things will not get any easier for this Fire side. While it is safe to say that MLS is a league in which fortunes can change quickly, a continued lack of movement in the transfer window, tactical inflexibility, and a mini injury plague are not strong indications that a turnaround is on the cards for Chicago.
Additionally, there are rumblings that chemistry in the locker room is not ideal with several players questioning the mentality of some of this season’s additions and admitting shock at the lack of the organization’s ability to build on last year’s success by dipping into the transfer market. This weekend’s encounter against the Timbers (5:00 CT at Toyota Park) is as close to a “must win” match as is possible at this early stage and the fixture’s result will be a good indicator of how this Chicago team will respond to adversity. Luckily for the Fire, Portland is not heading into the match in much better shape.
The past year has seen the Timbers organization make decisions that have altered the long-term course of the franchise. First, the decision to mutually part ways with Caleb Porter sent reverberations throughout MLS in a way that was only matched by the Timbers’ bizarre follow up decision to hire former New York Cosmos head coach Giovani Savarese. Porter was touted as one of the best tacticians and man managers the league has ever seen while Savarese’s coaching pedigree was largely unproven. Yes, we realize his Cosmos side won the NASL Soccer bowl trophy three out of the five seasons he coached there, but the sheer amount of resources and player personnel at his disposal hardly made that an impressive achievement. Such a drastic restructuring becomes all the more speculative when it wasn’t entirely necessary.
Second, the Timbers announced a 4,000-seat expansion to Providence Park to meet the demand for soccer availability in the Rose City. While such a renovation is becoming less rare in MLS, the impact of such a project on the grass-roots feel of the club may not be ideal. Rising ticket prices, further front office intrusion on supporter produced merchandise, and tighter player expenditures are just the most obvious negative aspects associated with recuperating some of the $55 million spent on the project.
Ultimately, as the two sides meet this Saturday there is far more at stake for each organization than just the three points. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Portland Form Guide: D-L-L
Previous Result: A 1-1 away draw against FC Dallas.
Formation: 4-3-2-1; Gleeson; Valentin, Tuiloma, Mabiala, Powell; Peredes, Olum, Chara; Blanco, Valeri; Adi
Strengths: No matter what issues the Timbers may be facing during this transitionary period, they can rely on the fact that a majority of the players on their squad finished first in the West last season. The moves they've made have largely increased the quality of that core group. It may take some time to figure out Saverese’s system and for the unit to be fully cohesive, but let’s take a look at where they might succeed this weekend.
Momentos de Magia: You knew this was coming so we’ll get it out of the way early. Despite their slow start to the season, the Timbers still boast the likes of Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco. The Argentine magicians can pull moments of brilliance out of thin air to salvage even the most-dire of situations. In the match against Dallas, which we will discuss extensively below, Blanco took matters into his own hands to start the second half of the encounter with a brilliant solo run and goal from just outside the box (his second of this young campaign). Beating two defenders and tucking it into the upper corner of the net could be an impressive moment in anyone’s career but Blanco barely celebrated, brushed off his shoulder, and got right back to work.
Similarly, despite the Timber’s winless streak—including a thrashing by New York Red Bull—Diego Valeri has registered an average of two key passes per match this season (a stat that reflects passes which lead directly to a goal scoring opportunity). This stat becomes all the more impressive given that Portland has failed to dominate possession in any of their encounters. It only takes a single pass to change the course of a match and the Timbers have not one, but two Enganche quality players to impact proceedings on Saturday.
Momentum to Build On: While a point on the road is often a result that can be celebrated, Portland’s draw with Dallas this past weekend was even more impressive given Portland’s avoidance of a third defeat, adverse weather conditions (MLS water breaks were in effect), and a more coherent tactical approach to the match. Whereas the first two matches of the season saw the Timbers attempt a high press, possession-based tactic that failed miserably, Savarese lined up in a more compact 4-3-2-1 formation against Dallas and utilized a conservative approach, opting to absorb pressure. The return of Diego Chara from injury made such an approach feasible and although it wasn’t pretty, it was effective, getting Portland over the hump of earning their first result of the season. Soccer is as much a mental game as it is a physical one and the relief of having a point base to build on could just carry the Timbers over the line on Saturday. Savarese and his men will certainly be heading into this match with higher morale than the hosts, a reality compounded by the fact that Chicago has not exactly exhibited the strong mental toughness that has been touted as part of the Process.
Adi Smash: One Timbers player that will be especially dangerous on Saturday is Fanendo Adi. A forward that has averaged just over thirteen goals per season in his time in MLS has been largely frustrated over the course of the last three matches. A change in style has seen his service diminish and the arrival of Samuel Armenteros from Benevento on loan means that for the first time in years he has some decent competition pushing him for his starting spot. Additionally, it is no secret that Adi see’s his future outside of MLS (several deals to Liga MX and mid-tier European leagues have fallen through over the past few seasons due to Portland’s high valuation of the forward), a factor that elevates the Nigerian’s motivation. All of these factors have led to a visibly frustrated Adi, frustration which is bound to satiate itself in the scoring of goals. The six-foot-four classic number nine has goal scoring written into his DNA, and the current center back panic exuding from the Fire’s lack of quality at that position will only further facilitate his dominance. He’s overdue a goal and something tells us he’ll get off the mark in Bridgeview.
History Doesn’t Lie: Lastly, MLS is a league where storylines carry a distinct weight of their own. Saturday’s fixture will be the ninth MLS meeting between these two sides and Chicago has failed to beat Portland on each of those occasions. The Timbers boast an impressive four wins across this series (including two at Toyota Park) with the other four matches resulting in draws. History tends to repeat itself in this league.
Weaknesses: No matter how you dress a pig (or perhaps a cat for our Portland brothers and sisters) … The Timber’s place in the table last season really doesn’t mean that much for this season’s standings and you can certainly bet that no Portland fan drew up the season panning out the way that it has. At the end of the day this is a results based business and Savarese is currently in as much of a hole as Paunovic and Rodriguez are. Let’s see where he, and the Timbers, will struggle on Saturday.
If It Isn’t Broken Don’t Fix It: While every incoming coach wants to impose their own style and team identity upon arrival, the way in which Giovani Savarese has completely blown up a model that had proven reliable is a bit head scratching. Known for a possession based style of play with numerous attacking outlets, Portland has made the post season for over half of their brief seven year MLS history, including an MLS Cup win in 2015. Intricate triangles, speedy wing play, brute force from strikers, overlapping full backs, and a midfield maestro provided MLS with a style that was a scintillating as the chants and tifo in the stands of Providence Park. Judging by their outings against LA and Dallas, Savarese has replaced that style with boring NASL style compact defending, long balls to be knocked on to a lone striker, and an overall stifling of creativity.
Seeing the Timbers make a foray into the opposing half (much less to speak of a foray into the final third) was a rare sight in the first twenty minutes against Dallas and it seemed as if the squad was specifically instructed to outlast the opening period unscathed before being given permission to go forward. This approach to the match was not only confusing to onlookers who are used to the aforementioned style, but appeared to confuse the players as well. Misplaced passes, insecurity in pressing, and allowing too much space to their opponents in the final third plagued the match. Alves Powell and Lawrence Olum had particularly atrocious games, losing their marks and committing needless fouls consistently.
All of this was exacerbated by the fact that although they lost 4-0 against Red Bull the week before, the Timbers out possessed their hosts in New Jersey and pressed high up the pitch while closing down quickly. The stark difference in tactics seems to indicate that Saverese has not yet decided which approach to take or is attempting to introduce tactical flexibility to a Portland side that hasn’t needed it to succeed in the past. Time is not a luxury that coaches often have and Saverese will need to sharpen up his tactical approach quickly.
I Thought We Addressed This Issue: While much has been made about Saverese leaving Liam Ridgewell (the club’s captain) in Portland for the Dallas trip, the fact of the matter is that the Timbers are far removed from the days where the Englishman and Nat Borchers were the best center back duo in the league. A message may have been sent about complacency and fighting for squad positions, but struggling in central defense has become the norm for Portland. The addition of Larrys Mabiala in the summer window last season did little to alleviate this worry and another dip into the Saprissa well this winter saw the acquisition of TAM center back Julio Cascante, who has yet to break into the starting eleven. Through balls in behind the central defensive pairing worked well for Dallas, an inability to cope with the counter led to success for Red Bull, and steady build up proved key for LA. The lesson? Portland is struggling with every form of attacking play. With a striker as lethal as Nemanja Nikolic and the passing ability of Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Portland will need to find a better solution to center back than pushing squad player Bill Tuiloma back from defensive midfield.
Prediction: This match has “draw” written all over it. Savarese’s drab tactics will earn him a second consecutive road point and Veljko Paunovic will have another reason for concern as Chicago falls further behind in the East. The one bright spot of the encounter will be the members of the Timbers Army and Section 8 Chicago who walk off into the sunset, arm in arm, to collaboratively brew home brew and use the spent grain to bake vegan biscuits for their dogs.