The Portland Timbers lost by four goals on Saturday to a New York Red Bulls team that almost exclusively started reserves. The question isn’t “when does this team hit rock bottom?” It’s “how long do they stay there?”
Every reasonable observer agrees that Gio Savarese deserves time to get this right. An adjustment period was always a likelihood for a coach coming to a new league and taking over a team with a sizable handful of new players.
And at the end of the day Saturday was an early-season loss to an Eastern Conference team. Sure, every game is a final — or so we’ve heard. But by objective measures, Saturday’s was a bit less of a final than just about any other game the Timbers will play in this regular season.
That doesn’t make it any less embarrassing, though. Nor does it make the course ahead any less uncertain or worrisome.
Within any adjustment period there are always some dropped results in the name of the process. So signs of progress within games become the rafts that coaches and fans alike cling to through some choppy seas.
Saturday night, however, sported 20-foot seas with no rafts in sight. And there has seemingly been fewer and fewer of them over the course of the last few weeks.
Rather than progressing from preseason into the regular season, this Timbers team seems to be going in the opposite direction. Asked about whether he feels his message is getting through, Savarese was vague, but defiant after the game:
It’s not about style or way of play. It’s about attitude. It’s about playing as a team. And that’s what we need to continue to work on and that’s what we need to improve.
Asked more specifically about pairing Lawrence Olum and David Guzman together in midfield, Savarese was — shall we say — less than forthcoming:
We felt that we wanted to put two players that know very well, the league. That have played together before. And we felt that for this match it was the better pairing in order to be able to get a result. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case.
Now, Savarese is absolutely not the first coach to resort to platitudes in a difficult moment, and he certainly won’t be the last. There’s a reason “coach-speak” is a phrase of its own.
But it also doesn’t inspire confidence that there’s a plan in place to make it better. Nor, for that matter, do substitutions of Victor Arboleda for Samuel Armenteros — the lone striker in the game — before the hour. Every outward sign right now is of a Timbers team that’s lost under its new coach while Savarese gropes for solutions.
So, sure, attitude was an issue for the Timbers on Saturday evening, and explains how a 2-0 game went 4-0 in the final 10 minutes. It doesn’t, though, explain how the Timbers deservedly went 2-0 down against a team playing its reserves.
That question is most important one that Savarese is tasked with answering. From everything we’ve seen on the field and heard off of it, however, believing there is a viable plan for doing so right now is an exercise in faith and patience over observation and analysis.
Liam Ridgewell and the abject humiliation that any self-respecting soccer player would feel after his effort on the Timbers’ first concession of Saturday evening. Just watch Ridgewell here:
The idea to follow Derrick Etienne into midfield isn’t a terrible one, as he’s checked back from an advanced position that makes it difficult for the defensive midfield to pick him up. But Etienne’s play there is always going to be a flick-on to Carlos Rivas, so if Ridgewell was going to track Etienne he couldn’t be late. He was. It happens.
That wasn’t the humiliating part. After Marco Farfan slides over — albeit in a far too ball-watchey way — to cover Ridgewell’s vacated spot in central defense, Ridgewell jogs back as two Red Bulls crash the back post for which he’s responsible.
The lack of any attempt to fill his vacated spot on the backline is inexcusable in its own right. Somehow, though, that’s not even the worst part of this. Watch Ridgewell again just as Etienne plays wide to Kaku:
He actually checked his shoulder. After he’d put himself behind the play by lollygagging back to the backline, Ridgewell checked his shoulder, saw there was imminent danger that he played a leading role in creating, and chose to do nothing at all about it.
If Savarese wants to fix the Timbers’ attitude, there’s some low-hanging fruit currently wearing the captain’s armband.
Stat of the Game
8 — The number of regular starters for the Red Bulls who began Saturday night either on the bench or in street clothes. The Timbers have no excuse for being run out of the building by that Red Bulls team.
- I’m on vacation, so I’m going to Ridgewell the Finishing Bullets.