Preseason is over, and the Portland Timbers are carrying a surprising wave of momentum considering where they were just four months ago.
The Timbers’ first team was impressive throughout the Preseason Tournament in Portland. But each of those games were at home against teams that figure to be (at best) on the fringe of the Western Conference playoff race.
Saturday represented the Timbers’ first away game of 2017 that even roughly approximated a regular-season game. Given the bugaboo that the road was for the Timbers, then, it was reasonable to see this as the Timbers’ biggest test before the season.
And they passed with flying colors.
Once again, the Timbers utterly dominated the first half. After taking ten minutes to find their footing, Caleb Porter’s side again looked like the only team on the field for the remainder of the first half, slicing their way through the Galaxy midfield and defense, smothering the Galaxy with their high press, and seemingly toying with Curt Onalfo’s team in possession.
Although the Timbers conceded a couple chances to the Galaxy, they did well to clean both up and, on the whole, LA was flattered by the Timbers’ 1-0 lead into the locker room.
The Galaxy made the game more competitive in the second half after introducing DP Romain Alessandrini in place of the ineffective Emmanuel Boateng, but the Timbers remained at least the home side’s equal as long as the bulk of their starters were on the field, and cruised to the win.
But if Saturday evening taught us anything, it’s that the high-flying style that the Timbers flashed at Providence Park in February can translate on the road against a quality opponent. The Timbers aren’t without their questions heading into the regular season, but Saturday night was the best indication yet that the Timbers’ possession-and-pressure approach could make some noise in MLS this year.
And at very least it looks like the Timbers are going to be breathtaking to watch.
By all appearances to date, therefore, 2017 looks like it’s going to be a new, exciting year. Bring on the regular season.
The biggest question dogging the Timbers throughout the last half of preseason has been what they’re going to do at right centerback after presumptive starter Gbenga Arokoyo ruptured his Achilles tendon. And that remains the biggest question, as the anticipated signing of Arokoyo’s replacement doesn’t appear imminent with Friday’s regular-season opener bearing down on the Timbers.
So it’s clear the Timbers are going to have to otherwise make due at centerback for the first bit of the season. Although whether that bit is a few weeks or a few months very much remains to be seen, it’s no secret that the centerback depth chart very much remains the weak spot on the Timbers’ roster.
Enter, Lawrence Olum. Signed primarily as a defensive midfielder, it’s become clear since the beginning of the Preseason Tournament that Olum would be the interim starting right centerback with Rennico Clarke understandably needing a bit more seasoning before being thrown into the fire. And although his performances in the Preseason Tournament weren’t without hiccups, the Timbers defense has looked at least competent with Olum alongside Liam Ridgewell.
On Saturday, however, Olum took a step forward. Not only did he look like a competent compliment to Ridgewell, Olum was the best player on the Timbers’ backline, putting out more than his share of fires to help the Timbers take and keep the lead.
With as potent as the attack has been, the Timbers’ defense doesn’t need to be great to start the season, it just needs to be serviceable. If Olum’s performance on Saturday is an indication of a growing partnership with Ridgewell, he may be the answer that the Timbers need to carry them through until reinforcements arrive on the backline.
Stat of the Game
5 6(!): The number of goals Fanendo Adi has scored this preseason, which is one more than the number of appearances he’s made this preseason. Adi has scored at least one goal in every game in which he’s appeared this preseason, with Saturday being his first multi-goal appearance of the year.
It certainly stood to reason coming into 2017 that Adi would be a major beneficiary of the Timbers surrounding him with playmakers throughout midfield. And so far that has very much proved to be the case. While a lot of Adi’s goals have certainly been the product of generous portions of service from the midfield and fullbacks, it’s worth noting the behemoth striker can still do things like this:
29' GOAL. Strong play from @fanendo and he hammers it home. Up, 1-0.— Portland Timbers (@TimbersFC) February 26, 2017
Stream: https://t.co/4b9p1OeDFa #RCTID pic.twitter.com/XZKU9XUq0L
The Timbers still need players not named Adi or Valeri to figure more into the goalscoring equation, but Adi remains one of the most dominant strikers in MLS. There are, quite simply, few strikers in MLS that can hold off and shed centerbacks like Adi did to set up his first goal on Saturday.
And with the pieces that he has around him, Adi’s preseason goalscoring binge very much looks like it could be sustainable.
- Marco Farfan got the start in place of Vytas (who stayed in Portland with what was described as a “minor bruise”), and again showed why the Timbers’ brass is so excited about the homegrown player. Although he showed his inexperience in getting beat on the Galaxy’s best chance of the first half (that was ultimately extinguished by Olum — see above), Farfan very much looked the part of a legitimate MLS left back on Sunday. The cherry on top of his overall strong performance was the second-half Galaxy counterattack that Farfan single-handedly stood up to spark this going the other way:
Preseason brace @fanendo tucks away his second of the night. Timbers up, 2-0. #RCTID— Portland Timbers (@TimbersFC) February 26, 2017
Stream: https://t.co/4b9p1OeDFa pic.twitter.com/Scw1tpET4w
- Farfan — at least for the moment — is second on the Timbers’ depth chart at left back. Although Roy Miller will figure into that positional battle to some extent once he gets to Portland next week, more performances like Saturday’s could keep Farfan as the primary backup to Vytas and in line to see real minutes in MLS and US Open Cup this season. Not too shabby for a guy who’s set to graduate high school in a few months.
- Aside from Vytas, the Timbers didn’t escape Saturday’s game without a bit of an injury concern. Just before he was set to come off in a planned substitution, Diego Valeri took an unfortunate boot to the foot from Sebastian Lletget, causing the Maestro to limp off the field. It didn’t appear as though the injury was serious — Valeri was able to get off the field more or less under his own power — but it’s nonetheless something to keep an eye on heading into the home opener.
UPDATE: Our friend Jamie B. Goldberg at The Oregonian chimes in with an update on Valeri and Vytas: Double rainbow.
Porter says Valeri is fine after yesterday's game. Vytas sat out the game after taking knock to his foot, but will be fine as well #RCTID— Jamie Goldberg (@Jamiebgoldberg) February 26, 2017
- The Timbers continue to put up gaudy shot stats. After dramatically out-shooting RSL and Vancouver at Providence Park, the Timbers put up 18 shots to the Galaxy’s 7 on Saturday. Although the Timbers need to get a little bit more precise (only 5 shots were on frame), that fact suggests only that PTFC’s attack may have some unrealized potential. And that in and of itself is a scary thought.