It’s easy to read too much into 45 minutes of February soccer at the Kino Sports Complex in Tucson.
But for the half that they played on Wednesday evening, a not-quite-first-choice Portland Timbers side looked good.
Okay, pretty good.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ 1-1 draw with the Dynamo:
1. Now are we all feeling good about the prospect of Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla on the wings?
Okay, I told myself I wasn’t going to get ahead of myself based on 45 minutes of preseason soccer, but Melano and Asprilla were (along with Diego Valeri) the best players on the field.
Melano looked as technical as ever, while pestering the Dynamo into repeated mistakes with his high pressure. And the Argentine DP remained effective playing inverted on the left despite not having an effective overlapping partner (more on that in a moment).
On the other side of the field, Asprilla dominated his matchup with DaMarcus Beasley, and took advantage of a DMB mistake to score the only goal of the half. But perhaps more exciting was the quickness with which Asprilla combined with Valeri and the readiness with which Powell overlapped over the top of the more-central-than-usual Colombian. Combining with his teammates was the slowest aspect of Asprilla’s game to develop over the course of 2015. On Wednesday he looked sharper in that respect than perhaps at any point in 2015.
With the loss of Rodney Wallace to Portugal, the wings were perhaps the biggest area of concern for the Timbers coming into this preseason. Although there were good signs coming from Asprilla and Melano during the playoff run, it remained to be seen whether the pair could effectively fill the wide-forward positions in the Timbers’ 4-3-3.
If Wednesday’s 45 minutes are any indication, Melano and Asprilla could be more than capable as the Timbers’ starting wingers in 2016. In fact, if they keep progressing, what was a perceived area of weakness could be one of the Timbers’ biggest strengths in the attack.
Or it could have just been a good 45 minutes in February.
2. The starting left back position is Chris Klute’s to lose, isn’t it?
The biggest area of concern for the Timbers on Wednesday was far and away left back. Zarek Valentin, in for a still-not-recovered-from-meniscus-surgery Klute, was not good.
Valentin let Andrew Wenger -- again, Andrew Wenger -- get in behind him twice to create two of Houston’s only threatening sequences of the 45 minutes. And it’s not like that happened because Valentin was bombing forward in support of Melano.
Rather, Melano was often going it alone on his left wing, making his job (that he still did quite well) significantly harder. And when Valentin did get forward in support of Melano, he was often slow to identify runs and to combine with his teammates in trying to open up the Dynamo flank.
To bury Valentin based on one half of soccer would be just as unfair as it would be to beatify Asprilla and Melano for their performances on Wednesday. Jorge Villafana’s first training camp with the Timbers, after all, was borderline disastrous. But this (hopefully short) period of time in which Klute is still recovering from his offseason surgery was Valentin’s chance to make his case for consideration in the starting eleven.
Thus far he hasn’t made much of one.
3. Is there anything to be taken away from the second half?
Not much. In the second half the Timbers rolled out a group in which Taylor Peay, Jack McInerney, and trialist Eric Avila were the only field players to have ever played in an MLS game. The Dynamo side was also green, but not nearly that green.
The Timbers unsurprisingly struggled through the midfield where PTFC’s irregulars were matched up against Dynamo first-teamers. Moreover, the Timbers backline - which collectively had 319 minutes of MLS experience - had spells of disconnection.
So, really, we’re left to extrapolate from the few moments that we saw from a handful of players.
Neco Brett, although stranded for much of the half as an attack-minded winger, showed he has pace, the presence of mind to make runs in behind, and some quality on the ball. Although he was hardly eye-popping, he did nothing to diminish the possibility that he at least earns a T2 contract.
Similarly, although he wasn’t as aggressive as Brett, Ben Polk was better at combining through the middle than anticipated for a player who is most naturally a target forward coming out of college. In his relatively limited touches Polk showed MLS-like speed of play, something which which even highly-touted rookies frequently struggle.
On the disappointment side, (and not at all unrelated to the last point) was Nick Besler, who had an opportunity to take a step forward and boss the central midfield paired with his likely T2 partner in Akinjide Idowu. Although he was given a tough task, Besler struggled to be a ball-winning presence in the middle of the park and couldn’t relieve the pressure on the disorganized Timbers with sharp distribution. Besler will be given a chance to break out again at T2 this year, but he isn’t showing obvious signs of doing so thus far in camp.
Overall, though, the team the Timbers rolled out was a pretty rag-tag group. The disjointed play really wasn’t a surprise, even if it put a little bit of a damper on what was a pretty impressive first half from the starting unit.