The Portland Timbers won their first preseason game of 2015 on Saturday, logging a 2-1 win in Tucson over the Seattle Sounders. And coming off a strong first-half performance against the Houston Dynamo earlier in the week, a dominant performance by the Timbers starters came as little surprise on Saturday.
Except that’s not what happened.
The Timbers starters put in a little bit of a ho-hum performance in the first 45 minutes against the Sounders (although some stayed in to play an hour), as they struggled to create anything noteworthy in a generally tight first half. Instead, it was the to-date maligned Timbers reserves that turned a 1-0 second-half deficit into a 2-1 victory in the last half hour of the game.
1. How excited should we be about the second unit’s performance on Saturday?
Well, the normal preseason caveats apply. Although a strong Tucson performance may earn a few players a job, it won’t earn anybody any trophies.
But the progress the second unit has made from their first preseason fixture against FC Tucson a week ago until now is remarkable. Against the PDL side last weekend, the Timbers’ reserves were reportedly disjointed and ineffective. Although the public wasn’t permitted to watch the game, the uncharacteristically tepid nature of Caleb Porter’s comments afterward tell you all you need to know.
Against the Dynamo midweek the starters dominated, but the second unit (which, to be fair, was missing several of the Timbers first-team’s regulars) again floundered against Owen Coyle’s reserves.
Against Seattle on Saturday? Well, just watch.
That’s no fluke goal. That’s really good attacking soccer.
The most exciting part? The primary participants in that buildup are Taylor Peay, Ben Polk, Nick Besler, and Neco Brett. Their victims? Andreas Ivanschitz, Osvaldo Alonso, and -- if rumblings on Sounders message boards are to be believed -- one of the best left backs in MLS, Joevin Jones. And Zach Scott got caught in no-man’s land. And Tyrone Mears was slow to cover his centerback.
Nice work, kids. That’s a lot of Sounders salary-cap space that you made to look bad.
Of that group of relative youngsters, Peay recovered from a shaky start to the game to become a key cog in the Timbers attack (an aspect of his game that has grown significantly since he came to Portland), and Polk put in another versatile performance as a positionally-flexible winger who can drop in to combine in midfield or step up as a second forward.
But the star was Neco Brett.
When he wasn’t serving as a facilitator in the Peay-masterminded combination above, he was pressing when the opportunity arose, doing a better job covering his defensive responsibilities than you’d expect for a fresh-out-of-college forward, and combining effectively within the flow of the buildup. We knew from the Houston game that he has pace and some technical ability. He showed against Seattle that he has more to his game than simply the ability to take players on one-on-one.
Oh, and he did this.
Yes, the sample size is small. And maybe Brett simply played out of his mind against the Sounders.
But the Jamaican's performance in camp has been earning praise since the opening week, suggesting that others have seen throughout the course of camp some version of what we say against Seattle. And if what we saw against the Sounders represents anything close to typical for Brett, the Timbers took a top-10 talent with the 40th pick in the draft.
2. Is this what we can expect from Jack McInerney?
If it is, the Timbers will emerge from the loss of Maximiliano Urruti just fine.
Although McInerney didn’t come to the Timbers for cheap, his salary-cap hit is likely less than half of what Urruti’s would have been in 2016. And for less than half the price, the Timbers replaced Urruti with a striker that, although not boasting the all-around game of Fanendo Adi, looks likely to take up Urruti’s place as the best pure finisher in the club.
Although McInerney was more involved in the buildup against Seattle than he was against Houston, he’s not reputed to be better than average in that phase of the game and hasn’t shown anything in the last week to undercut that notion.
But he showed on Saturday what he can do with even a little bit of service.
As we saw in the clip of the Timbers’ second goal above, McInerney loves to float off the weakside centerback’s back shoulder and find the space in front of the fullback. If a ball comes in from the far side, then, McInerney will have room to operate within the box to get on the ball, just as he did with Peay’s (great) low cross.
But by far the more impressive finish was his one-touch left footer to slide Andy Thoma’s delicious cross into the far post for the equalizer.
That’s a really, really good finish. Soccer aficionados often use the word "poacher" as a pejorative. McInerney is an unabashed poacher; he’s a good finisher with excellent box movement, but doesn’t provide all that much in the buildup.
But on Saturday McInerney showed how being a good poacher isn’t remotely a bad thing. And with the myriad weapons the Timbers have through midfield, the journeyman striker could prove to be great value if that’s what Porter is going to get on a regular basis from Jack Mac.
3. Is the flat performance from the first unit cause for concern?
As noted, the Timbers’ starters didn’t impress on Saturday as much as the reserves. Although the starters weren’t bad, and came off the field as a unit at halftime with a reasonably representative 0-0 draw, they didn’t dominate a Sounders team that was a mix of regulars and MLS-quality bench players.
So while the Timbers’ first-choice unit wasn’t poor, it didn’t put forth the same excellent performance they showed midweek against the Dynamo. In particular, the Timbers struggled to find Fanendo Adi for extended periods and, as such, struggled to open up the spaces on the wing for Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla.
Is this cause for concern?
In short: Not really. At least for now.
It’s worth noting the starters only effectively played the first half of a game, which is typically the tighter period of even a midsummer regular-season game. Moreover, a little bit of inconsistency is in the nature of early preseason.
The true test of whether the Timbers’ dynamism against Houston was an outlier, therefore, will come when the whole starting unit starts to stretch its minutes well into the second half, when games typically open up. If the first-choice attack continues to struggle to generate genuine scoring chances as it did against Seattle, then there may be justifiable concern about the team’s early-season form.
But for now the responsible take is that the Timbers attack has shown that it can break defenses open. The question remains, however, whether it will, in fact, be able to do so consistently.