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Timber Cruise: Portland Timbers 3, Real Salt Lake 3

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MLS: Portland Timbers vs Real Salt Lake USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the first edition of the Timber Cruise, a forest-level survey of the Timbers most recent game, this week their Preseason Tournament opener against Real Salt Lake.

The Timbers’ priorities shift ever-so-gradually over the course of the preseason. In the first games in Tucson, the focus is fitness. When the Timbers return home for their Preseason Tournament, however, the dial begins to turn toward sharpness.

And with the Preseason Tournament coming a week earlier this year than in years past, the Timbers were very much in the midst of that transition on Thursday, with the starters (or most of them, at least) playing 60 minutes for the first time while looking considerably more competitive than any of the Tucson games.

So the effort from the starting unit on Thursday was more or less what Caleb Porter wanted out of his team. Before Diego Chara picked up a deserved 41-st minute red card, the Timbers were dominant; they found the opening goal and kept Real Salt Lake completely under wraps until going down a man. Even after Chara’s red card (which he drew contesting RSL’s first shot of the game), the shorthanded Timbers very much remained competitive, opening a 3-1 lead before letting Salt Lake pull one back minutes before coming off just before the hour.

It was largely “mission accomplished,” therefore, for the Timbers’ starters, from whom we finally got to see two key pieces (re)introduced. Sebastian Blanco impressed in his Timbers debut, showing a relentless incisiveness that put the Salt Lake backline on its heels and an impressive workrate that kept the Claret-and-Cobalt unsettled in the buildup. Meanwhile Darlington Nagbe was Darlington Nagbe, with, as Matthew Doyle pointed out, the buildup to the first goal showing both the spectacular and the mystifying.

The Timbers still have work to do before they’re ready for March 3rd, but with four games and most of a month remaining before the regular season kicks off, Porter’s team very much looks to be on schedule.

Spotlight on...

Jack Barmby. And, more precisely, his arrival in the midst of a pretty vigorous battle for minutes on the wing.

There’s a real competition brewing among the Timbers’ young depth on the wing. At times in Tucson we saw flashes from Dairon Asprilla and Victor Arboleda. But on Thursday it was all Barmby, who assisted Darren Mattocks’s goal just minutes after coming on for Blanco at halftime and generally looked like the best player in the Timbers’ second unit that played out the final 30 minutes.

Asked after the game how he feels about the competition among his depth wingers, Caleb Porter was effusive:

Yeah, it’s great. I love it. I love it. It makes training real because it means everybody has got to fight every day in training, which will mean we’ll be sharper in games because of that.

With every passing game we expect the battle for minutes on the wings to become clearer. And yet, with every passing game it seems the pecking order only becomes murkier, with Barmby’s strong Thursday night only adding question marks — and intrigue — to the competition.

And that appears to be just the way Porter wants it.

Stat of the Game

2 - The number of shots that Real Salt Lake had in the first half, both of which came during (and as a result of) the play on which Chara earned his red card. While the Timbers attack looked promising throughout the first half, the defensive performance (at least when the Timbers were at full strength) was arguably more encouraging. Although the Timbers need to avoid red cards like Chara’s, if they can defend from the front and midfield like they did in the first half, 2017 is going to be a very different year.

Finishing Bullets

  • We had our first look at video assistant referee and, well, it has a long way to go before it’s ready for primetime. Although the call was ultimately corrected and Chara was correctly issued a red card, what should have been an easy, quick review turned into a multi-minute pause that confused the home fans (who did not have the benefit of an in-stadium replay to even know what was being reviewed) and stalled a game that had been picking up momentum. When MLS unveiled its replay plans last year, league officials insisted it would (unlike every other league to use replay) be done in such a way so as not to interrupt the flow of the game. Thursday showed they have a lot of work yet to do in order to make good on that promise. Color me skeptical.
  • Ben Zemanski continues to struggle, as he did after returning from an extended injury absence last season. With Lawrence Olum now in town and Amobi Okugo also capable of playing as a defensive midfielder, it’s getting harder to see where Zemanski fits on the Timbers’ roster.
  • After the game, Caleb Porter stated he expects Fanendo Adi to be back in the lineup for the Preseason Tournament finale against Vancouver next week, with the potential that he will play some minutes on the weekend against Minnesota United.