In light of Sunday’s frustrating and costly loss to Vancouver, the Portland Timbers’ left their 1-1 draw against the Chicago Fire with a bit more confidence, even if the end result was secondary. Caleb Porter mentioned three things the Timbers wanted to accomplish on Wednesday: 1) Look at a few different attacking combinations; 2) Measure the Timbers’ newcomers in a live game; and 3) Keep the first-team bench players sharp.
After the game, Porter had a "mission accomplished" attitude with respect to each task, but that doesn’t mean the team answered all of its questions heading into the regular season. Here are three still lingering in Wednesday night’s wake.
1. Can Dairon Asprilla run Gaston Fernandez out of the lineup?
Perhaps the preeminent question at the outset of the evening was whether young Colombian winger Dairon Asprilla could push veteran Gaston Fernandez out of the starting eleven. That question, however, is no clearer now than it was leading into the evening, even if solid performances from both players likely have the Timbers feeling a bit better about the choice.
Dairon Asprilla was tremendous for the first thirty minutes on Wednesday, dominating both sides of the ball on a right side that the Timbers won decisively in the early going. As Porter noted postgame, Asprilla wasn’t perfect, but the imperfections he has in losing the ball a time or two more than the coach would like are easily outweighed by the electricity he brings in the attack and surprising urgency he contributes in defense. Questions remain, however, about whether Asprilla is prepared to contribute in a starting role, as the winger’s influence waned on Wednesday as fatigue set in during the second half.
As for Fernandez, the Argentine recovered from a frustrating outing on Sunday with a solid one Wednesday night. Whereas Fernandez had trouble finding central space against the Whitecaps, against the Fire, La Gata had more success stepping back between the lines underneath Maxi Urruti and pulling some strings from a central position. The Timbers weren’t able to convert many into great chances, but the playmaking passes were there.
After the game, Porter sounded far from certain about the choice between Fernandez and Asprilla, and suggested it may be a matter of playing the hot hand between now and when Diego Valeri returns to the lineup in May. But while Porter may be no closer to decisively answering this question Wendesday evening, he seemed markedly more at ease with the choice.
2. Did Nick Besler or George Fochive make a case to get early-season playing time with the first team?
Probably not. But both had good nights.
In his postgame press conference, Porter went out of his way to praise Fochive’s performance, particularly citing Fochive’s activity in central midfield and willingness to get stuck into tackles. Fochive was particularly strong in the second half, and if such performances keep up he may find himself in a position to establish an MLS career for himself.
Although not as active as his central-midfield partner, Besler showed tactical understanding and ball-winning capabilities beyond his years. As expected, Besler is still a beat slow in circulation and had a few moments of imprecision on Wednesday, but with a bit more development the rookie looks to be an excellent systemic fit if Porter decides to employ a true holding midfielder in the future. Besler doesn’t have Fochive’s proclivity to launch into tackles, but his positional awareness is solid and provided a crucial line of defense in front of the backline on Wednesday.
As for whether either player can beat out Jack Jewsbury, however, that looks like a longshot before Will Johnson returns. It’s not implausible that either or both will earn some playing time at some point this season, but barring further injury both look unlikely to break into the lineup early on. In the end, Jewsbury’s experience makes him the safe and responsible choice for what will be a crucial stretch of games before Johnson is fit to take over.
3. But really, did the Timbers answer any questions about their sputtering attack?
There was a lot that looked better from the Timbers on Wednesday night, but the fact remains that Porter’s first team has yet to score from the run of play this preseason. And while the Timbers had better rhythm and flow in the final third than they did on Sunday, they still haven’t showed the ability to ripen half-chances and strong midfield play into genuine goalscoring opportunities.
There are asterisks all over the place in analyzing the Timbers’ attacking performance from Sunday. The Fire lineup for much of the game was decidedly second choice. Although the Timbers attack featured some regulars throughout, it was never complete. And although Michael Nanchoff’s goal was certainly well-taken, it too came directly from a set piece. And, at the end of the day, quality goalscoring opportunities were still few and far between.
So, despite looking more in-synch in the attack on Wednesday night, it’s hard to say the Timbers put to bed any concerns about reprising 2014’s tepid goalscoring spring.