Sunday, March 25, 2018

Early Season Observations About the 2018 Portland Timbers

Portland Timbers, Timbers, 2018, MLS, defender, backline
I thought Bill Tuiloma would be key in 2018, just not this soon
The offseason has been somewhat disjointed - but a big construction project and a schedule full of road matches will do that for fans of the Portland Timbers. In some respects, this year reminds me of the 2011 MLS season when the home opener versus the Chicago Fire was scheduled to accommodate the construction project to convert the grounds from multi-purpose to soccer specific venue. Due to the planned renovation schedule,  Portland played most of their pre-season and early schedule away from the Rose City as progress at the park continued right up until the April 14th home opener. This year, the park is undergoing updates to add approximately 5,000 seats to the east end of the stadium with phase 1 work delaying the home opener for 2018 to - ironically enough - April 14, 2018. Both teams played much of their pre-season in Arizona, but the 2011 Timbers did have a U.S. Open Cup qualifying match at Merlo Field in late March plus the Cascadia Summit at Starfire for fans to see their team in person. For 2018, the Timbers haven't played any competitive soccer locally, meaning that most fans have only seen this team on television - or if you are lucky enough to have traveled to Arizona, Los Angeles, New York or Dallas in support.

It's only 3 matches into the year, but I wanted to put together some quick thoughts about the progress so far after the Timbers secured their first point of 2018 courtesy of a 1 all draw with FC Dallas. Sebastian Blanco netted his second goal of 2018 early in the second half which was enough to give Timbers Coach Giovani Savarese his first ever MLS points as a coach, but Portland actually had several chances to take all 3 points. FC Dallas struck first courtesy of forward Roland Lamah, but they couldn't hold on for the home win even though they had opportunities to stretch their lead. After losing their first 2 matches in Los Angeles and New York, Portland was looking for a reboot to find any positives - especially after watching a Red Bull side populated with several reserves (talented but very young and raw assets) totally dominate the Timbers. Savarese had very harsh words for his team after the Red Bulls result, considering that Portland had played the Galaxy relatively even through most of match 1, and appeared to be the more dominant side in the second half. In New York, the Timbers looked lost and disinterested in all aspects of play, and the results were disheartening to say the least.

Many experts put out their thoughts about the team and what was wrong - from asking questions about the tactical approach to open questions about the defensive approach and captaincy and even throwing out the panic button after 2 matches. It was obvious the Timbers were not in sync in New York at all, and this led to some intriguing tactical decisions by Savarese - leaving captain Liam Ridgewell in Portland and giving youngster Bill Tuiloma his first MLS start, plus putting the team in a measured 4 defender, 3 central midfielder, 2 attacking midfielder, 1 striker formation designed to reinforce the backline in front of goalkeeper Jake Gleeson. While Savarese indicated that he felt Ridgewell was still an important part of this team, he also felt in imperative to send a message to the club. You could tell there was a difference in their step when they took to the pitch versus FC Dallas, there was more cohesiveness, more passion, more energy. There were mistakes and missed opportunities for sure, but Portland showed fire and purpose - and played their most complete match of 2018 in a venue that has troubled them in the past against a team that has usually had their way with them in Texas.
Portland Timbers, Timbers, 2018, MLS season, MLS, midfielder
 Blanco's 2nd half goal in Dallas was awesomely ridiculous

Other observations and comments:
  • I have a great deal of respect for Savarese's resume and accomplishments during his coaching career, but the New York match showed an egregious lack of discipline from the Timbers. After showing well against the Galaxy, it was almost as if the team had forgotten every principle of the attack. Teams will often test the authority of a new coach, and it was great to see Savarese work within the team to adjust where needed but get his players to buy into his message.
  • There's been plenty of ire leveled at Ridgewell, especially after his lackadaisical defense contributed to a New York goal. We've all seen the footage of him jogging slowly while Gleeson is left out to dry on the counter, and Ridgewell had a few other questionable decisions on the night. Savarese's decision to leave the standing captain at home and not travel sent a very clear message - play hard or get benched.
  • Sebastian Blanco has been the only Timber to score a goal in 2018, and he's been solid on both sides of the ball. Aiding on defense while contributing to some of the creativity in the offense, it's obvious that having Blanco in camp during pre-season helped his preparedness. Blanco wasn't officially added in time to be part of 2017 camp, and his early season performances were inconsistent at times - but he's very dialed in this year.
  • It was good to see more of the creative Diego Valeri in Dallas, but it will continue to be a work in progress to see the 2017 MLS MVP start to influence matches like he did last year. When the team had Darlington Nagbe and Valeri on board, there were 2 extremely creative forces on the pitch, but with Nagbe in Atlanta now, Valeri has become the main instigator for the offense. One of Savarese's big keys to jumpstarting the offense is figuring out how to create more space for Valeri to do his thing, because right now, it's not happening with any frequency.
  • Maybe the Ridgewell situation will push Fanendo Adi some. I love Adi's game and talent and he's been a very accomplished scorer for the Timbers over his career. But I saw too many runs yesterday cut off combined with disinterested attacks at points for my own good. When Adi is engaged, he's very dangerous - and right now, this version of Adi doesn't appear switched on.
  • I liked Tuiloma's work in the pre-season on the defensive line, and thought we might see him join the rotation at some point in 2018. I have to be honest that I didn't expect it in game 3 of 2018.
  • Even in conceding 7 goals in 3 matches, I still think Gleeson has actually played well in 2018. He hasn't made the glaring errors we have seen from him in previous seasons, and I like that he's been very communicative with his defensive line about keeping in sync. Sounds like somebody who wants to keep his starting gig.
  • Alvas Powell showed some of the promise we keep hoping to see regularly, but I'm also wary of the talk. Powell has been the player many have expected to elevate his play to elite, but after 5 seasons where his play has been either very on or really off, it's time to see some consistency.
I am also doing my best to see if posts can be generated more regularly. I'd like to have some future posts about cats predicting soccer matches, but part of that means getting them engaged and the other is getting the editor to decide on a format that works. As a thinker by nature, I tend to contemplate and analyze to no end which leads to a lot of "paralysis through analysis" or more commonly known as buffering. Like with other things in my life, it's working through the process to improve - and April can't get here soon enough. 

1 comment:

  1. I am trying to be positive, as almost always, and I am naturally disappointed in our early season. I am hoping that the rest of the offense starts clicking soon, and I like what you said about Ridgy being benched potentially sending a message to all, but particularly Adi. While obviously our most prolific scorer, I want to see a less pouty and more aggresssve Adi. For the most part, I feel like our offense will get there. It’s the D that kills me.