Preseason is officially underway.
Well, in fairness it’s been underway for a while. And the Timbers had even already played a game heading into Saturday evening. But now it feels really underway.
The Portland Timbers lost to the Seattle Sounders on Saturday evening by a couldn’t-be-less relevant scoreline of two-to-one. The starters drew at one goal a piece. The reserves shipped a goal on a bad giveaway, but otherwise looked fine (albeit with some mixed performances) first against the Sounders starters and then a young group of reserves and academy players.
The story, though, was the starters and, in particular, how they found their way into the game in the first half.
The first 15 minutes or so from the Timbers first-choicers was, well, pretty rough. Seattle had the far better of the run of play as the Timbers repeatedly struggled to hold the ball and build into the attack.
Without Darlington Nagbe, the Timbers struggled to find the player to help them transition to the front foot — a topic that has been much-discussed this offseason. Lacking Diego Chara in central midfield and a lot of sharpness, too often in the early stages the Timbers quickly bailed to where they could find the most space — which often to Dairon Asprilla flared wide on the right wing. Asprilla certainly has his virtues as a player, but combining and keeping the ball aren’t among them.
So you’d be forgiven if in the first 15 minutes you had a couple thoughts of dread about Nagbe’s absence from the Timbers midfield.
You know what, though? As the half went along, the Timbers started to figure it out. Some of the loose touches and passes through midfield got a little bit tighter. And rather than bailing wide to Asprilla, the Timbers started finding Sebastian Blanco.
The difference was stark. Instead of playing through an isolated winger, the midfield started to string combinations together. Once that happened, later wide actions like this started to open up:
Now, this is far from the end of this story — how the Timbers are going to reliably build up and keep the ball remains one of the central storylines of this preseason. It was, however, encouraging to see progress on this front even within the course of Saturday’s first half.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Early preseason games are a wildly imperfect guide to the team’s tactical development. There’s enough rust to shake off and enough new players to integrate that a team doesn’t really look close to a finished product until much later in February.
These early preseason games can be, however, a window into the current status of positional races. So let’s take a look at whose stock rose, and whose stock fell in Tucson on Saturday.
Marco Farfan — Easily the best player for the Timbers in the second half, Farfan shined against both Seattle’s starters for the first 15 minutes and the reserves in the second 30 minutes. It was a comprehensive performance for the 19-year-old fullback, who was constantly in the right spot to provide support in the attack, clean in possession, incisive in distribution, disciplined in defense, and — when he went shoulder-to-shoulder to deny Jordan Morris — heroic in front of Kendall McIntosh’s goal. Very simply put: If that’s a repeatable performance from Farfan, he’s going to create a left-back controversy in a hurry.
Cristhian Paredes — Paredes made his debut with the second unit after halftime, and, despite arriving late into camp, stepped right in to be the Timbers’ best player in central midfield. The Paraguayan midfielder worked the Timbers out of several tight spots, and provided the most dangerous option in a central midfield that at times otherwise struggled to string passes together.
Jeff Attinella — Based on coach Giovanni Savarese’s lineup selections in the first two preseason games, it’s pretty clear Jeff Attinella has the lead for the number-one shirt right now. And he did nothing to hurt his case on Saturday, as Attinella was excellent in managing a Sounders team that found players in behind — Morris, more often than not — with regularity. Attinella was decisive off his line, and made himself big in multiple circumstances to keep the Sounders to one in the first half.
Jack Barmby — Of all the players in the midst of a positional battle, Barmby had something close to a nightmare on Saturday evening. Handed a lot of responsibility with the second unit playing as a 10 after Andy Polo replaced Renzo Zambrano, Barmby was haggard throughout, giving away the ball — including the cringe-worthy turnover that handed the Sounders the winning goal — and failing to be an effective facilitator as the Timbers created danger down both wings. It’s just one data point in what sounds like has otherwise been a good camp for Barmby, but in the race between Barmby, Victor Arboleda, Andres Flores, and even Eryk Williamson to be the fifth player in the third level of the Timbers’ formation, Saturday was an opportunity missed for the Englishman.
Lawrence Olum — The Sounders semi-unexpectedly came out in a narrow diamond 4-4-2, something for which the Timbers were clearly not entirely prepared. As a result, the Timbers’ defensive midfield had a lot of pressure put on it to handle at times a flood of Sounders attackers. They didn’t cope well, in no small part because Olum was overmatched as a six. As a result, David Guzman (who himself had a rough go) had little cover to go ball-hunting. In a vacuum this would be easy to write off as the Sounders introducing an unexpected tactical wrinkle in a preseason game in which the Timbers likely did little tactical preparation for their opposition. But Paredes’s impressive debut raises the stakes for Olum somewhat, and makes it more likely the young Paraguayan may step in alongside Guzman until Chara returns to the lineup.
Jeremy Ebobisse — This is a high-stakes preseason for Ebobissee, who has to show he nonetheless is worthy of first-team minutes notwithstanding the Timbers’ anticipated addition of another TAM-level striker. Saturday didn’t help his cause, as Ebobisse was largely a non-factor in a second half. Again, it’s only one data point in a much longer preseason, but Ebobisse’s struggles on Saturday were conspicuous.