The Portland Timbers’ preseason is over, and it has ended with at least as many questions as it started.
Which isn’t to say the Timbers’ preseason was unsuccessful — it was a success in many respects. But if you were hoping the Timbers would emerge from their time in Tucson with a clear path going forward, the end result isn’t what you imagined.
Indeed, in many respects the Timbers are more unsettled than when camp broke in Tucson a month ago. Coach Giovanni Savarese entered preseason leaning toward employing the relatively familiar 4-2-3-1 as his primary set. That very much appeared to still be the case as recently as a week ago — at least until that 4-2-3-1 looked flat against FC Dallas. But then we saw the Timbers’ first-choice team drop into a narrow diamond 4-4-2 in the last half-hour against Dallas, with Samuel Armenteros initially paired up top with Fanendo Adi. The result: The Timbers suddenly came to life.
On Saturday against Sporting Kansas City, though, the Timbers again came out in their 4-2-3-1. And they again struggled in transition and to establish themselves on the front foot. So before halftime the Timbers shape-shifted back into the diamond with Andy Polo running up top with Adi, Lawrence Olum sitting at the back of the diamond, David Guzman and Sebastian Blanco on the sides, and Diego Valeri running the point. The result: After a dreadful first 35 minutes, the Timbers showed signs of life.
Paired with a couple changes, though, the Timbers again changed shapes after halftime. With Armenteros in for Adi (more on that later) and Cristhian Paredes stepping on for Olum, the Timbers moved to a 4-1-4-1 that shaped up at times like an inverted-triangle 4-3-3 with Guzman sitting as the lone holding midfielder, Paredes playing the box-to-box role, Armenteros up top, Blanco on the left, and Polo and Valeri floating freely between the middle and the right wing. The result: 0-2 turned into 3-2 and Armenteros ended up mugging for photos with the golden boot for the Mobile Mini Sun Cup.
None of this is to say the 4-2-3-1 is dead. Or even that it won’t wind up being the Timbers’ primary set for 2018 — there is, after all, a decent argument that the problems the Timbers had with their familiar setup could be largely fixed with the return of Diego Chara.
But it is to say that it’s clear Gio is still figuring out his team. Don’t interpret that as a criticism — the guy has only been in charge of a team integrating several now contributors for a little more than a month, after all. It is, however, an indication that over the course of the next few weeks we may see quite a bit of the tactical flexibility that we heard of when the Timbers hired Savarese.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Samuel Armenteros — This one is pretty obvious. Four goals and two assists in 120 minutes is pretty darn good. And it’s exactly four goals and two assists more than Fanendo Adi had in significantly more preseason minutes. At this point, the Timbers simply can’t keep Armenteros off the field.
Alvas Powell — Powell wasn’t perfect on Saturday, but one of the competitions we were watching at the beginning of preseason was Powell against Zarek Valentin to start at right back. Of all those competitions across the Timbers’ roster, Powell at right back is the only player who really took hold in one of those competitions, and not because Valentin faltered significantly. Over the course of preseason, Powell was flat out good.
The Backup Centerbacks — In addition to their 3-2 win over SKC on Saturday, the Timbers’ reserves dominated a closed-door friendly with the Houston Dynamo by the score of 4-0. Among the stars of that game was Julio Cascante, who scored (for the second time this preseason), but also anchored the backline. Although Cascante had a little bit more of an adjustment period, both he and Bill Tuiloma posted an excellent preseason that has made Cascante a bona fide threat to the starting spot of Liam Ridgewell or Larrys Mabiala, and has made a convincing case for Tuiloma to receive serious consideration for playing time.
Victor Arboleda — It was hardly a comprehensive preseason performance from Arboleda, but he may have put in the single best outing of any Timber in Tucson. Arboleda isn’t necessarily knocking on the door of earning a starting spot on the wing, but for a player who was (at best) fourth on the Timbers’ wing depth chart, Arboleda made a compelling case for playing time in 2018.
Marco Farfan — The typical youthful struggles with consistency seem to still be there, as Farfan struggled against FC Dallas after strong performances to begin the year. But he bounced back by starring (and scoring) in the closed-door friendly with Houston. Although he looked haggard after unexpectedly coming on after Vytas went down in the second half against Kansas City, Farfan gets a bit of a pass for that because he was playing in his second game of the day. On the whole, though, Farfan had an excellent preseason that launched him into the conversation to start at left back even notwithstanding Vytas’s injury.
Fanendo Adi — You’d be a fool to start throwing dirt on a player with Adi’s unimpeachable credentials on the basis of a disappointing preseason, but Adi’s margin for error narrowed considerably with the acquisition and strong performance of Armenteros. Adi is still going to be a major part of the Timbers this season, but at this point it’s not entirely clear what role he’s going to play.
Vytas — It was an eventful preseason for Vytas, and not in a great way. His play was inconsistent, he drew a red card, and — at the end of one of his better performances of in Tucson — he went down with a hamstring injury. So the last month has been a bumpy road for the Timbers’ incumbent left back. To make matters worse, however, he was largely outperformed by Marco Farfan for much of preseason. Vytas appears poised to miss some time with the hamstring injury he suffered against SKC, and Farfan could lay claim to the position with strong play in Vytas’s place.
David Guzman — Perhaps the most common question posed during the Timbers’ time in Tucson was about the health of Diego Chara. By the looks of things on the field, Guzman may have been on the asking end of many of those questions. Guzman’s partnership with Lawrence Olum never came together, and the Costa Rican midfielder looked uncomfortable playing in a more box-to-box role. Perhaps the best sign from Guzman’s preseason, though, was that he looked significantly more comfortable as a true holding midfielder next to Paredes after halftime against the Wiz. The reunion of Chara and Guzman, therefore, may solve many or all of Guzman’s problems in preseason.