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Timber Cruise: FC Dallas 1, Portland Timbers 1

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MLS: Portland Timbers at FC Dallas Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers were rightly the targets of a lot of criticism after their 4-0 thumping in New York. Over the last two weeks the Timbers would tell anybody who would listen that the loss to the Red Bulls had sparked a change in mentality from the team.

If they were going to prove it on Saturday, though, they were going to have to do it in their most difficult road test to date, and likely their most difficult of the season-opening five-game road trip.

Well, point made. Let’s cruise.

Deep Cuts

Sometimes the short-term has to take priority over the long-term. Giovanni Savarese has shown no sign of wavering from his commitment to turn his Timbers into a team that presses high and tries to win games from the front foot.

The Timbers had mixed — albeit more negative than positive — results against Los Angeles. Savarese backed off the press somewhat against the Red Bulls, but the team was largely a mess both in approach and commitment. With the team not taking quickly to Savarese’s desired style and a crisis of confidence around the club and perhaps in the team, he was faced with a choice: Stay the course and try to chip away at a tactical transformation that was slow-going at the risk of more embarrassing results, or put the team in a position to compete against FC Dallas and try to address the commitment problems that turned the loss in New Jersey into a humiliation.

“Being hard to break down, however, has hardly been the Timbers calling card thus far in 2018.” That was the last sentence I wrote on Saturday morning when I finished up my Scouting Report of FC Dallas.

Savarese threw everything but the kitchen sink at changing that on Saturday. He deployed the Timbers in a 4-3-2-1 formation that featured three defensive midfielders in front of a backline that Savarese selected specifically for defensive fortitude. By committing those numbers to defense, Savarese let Fanendo Adi, Diego Valeri, and Sebastian Blanco play a three-man game in the attack — hoping that at least one of them would pull off a play or two.

And it worked.

In the first half, the Timbers turned the 20 yards in front of their own goal into a virtual no-fly zone for FC Dallas, reducing a talented attack to stagnation.

Throughout the game the Timbers defended in about as low a block as possible — packing numbers into the box to shut down FC Dallas within 20 yards of goal and racking up clearances as the Burn poured speculative passes into the box.

The cost was, of course, substantial. The Timbers were at least as far from scoring as Dallas for the entirety of the first half. And when the Burn capitalized on one of the few small windows that the Timbers allowed them by way of a well-taken Roland Lamah strike from 20 yards, it looked like Savarese’s choice and the Timbers’ good work may not pay off.

But then Blanco pulled off a play and the Timbers were back in business. And despite a foolish not-that-late red card for Lawrence Olum, Savarese’s seven-man citadel held while Pareja’s side threw everything they had at the Timbers.

It wasn’t pretty. It really wasn’t all that entertaining. But it was a significantly improved performance and a good road result.

More importantly, however, it was something to build on for a team that looked utterly lost just two weeks ago. And it’s a foundation the Timbers likely never would have had if Savarese hadn’t chosen to put his tactical transformation on the backburner for a week.

Spotlight on...

Bill Tuiloma in his MLS debut.

It became clear on Friday evening that Liam Ridgewell hadn’t traveled to Dallas, and on Saturday morning we learned Ridgewell’s absence from the team was a coach’s decision. The Timbers — as they should — have insisted the decision was a tactical one and that Ridgewell remains an important part of the team’s plans. The context in which Ridgewell was dropped, however, can’t be ignored.

Whatever the reason, though, Saturday provided a massive opportunity for Tuiloma to show he can be effective on an MLS field. He did more than that.

Tuiloma was among the more active members of the Timbers’ defensive shell on Saturday, registering nine clearances and a crucial early-game block of a dangerous Maxi Urruti shot. And more important — though hardly sexy — is that he had a clean run throughout the game.

The Kiwi centerback was perhaps the biggest winner out of the Timbers’ preseason, rising from being a fringe depth piece to a competitor for minutes at one of the Timbers’ most uncertain positions. On Saturday Tuiloma continued that rise and went from a hypothetical threat to Ridgewell’s job at left centerback to out-and-out competition for the job.

Given the way Tuiloma performed on Saturday, he may even be the favorite for now.

Stat of the Game

6 to 2 — The Timbers advantage in shots on target. Sure, FC Dallas had most of the ball (61% of it, to be exact), penetrated a ton more as evidenced by the 10 corners they earned to the Timbers’ two, and strung together almost 500 passes to the Timbers’ 326.

But it’s not necessarily accurate to saw FC Dallas was the more dangerous team on the day. By and large, the Timbers forced the Burn to subsist off of half-chances. They converted one of those, but genuine scoring opportunities were few and far between for Dallas.

Finishing Bullets

  • In a game in which the Timbers were going to have to be opportunistic in the attacking half, Alvas Powell was wasteful in a way that evoked some of his poorest form over the years. His crosses were, by and large, hopelessly overhit; he was sloppy in possession; and he was overall a liability in the attack when the Timbers very much needed him to be an asset. Powell’s distribution map is not for those with a weak stomach:
  • But for as disappointing as Powell was in the attack, he was nails in defense, leading the Timbers in clearances and generally locking down the right side of the backline. This isn’t new for Powell, whose defensive aptitude has always outshone his attacking prowess. But it still has to be part of the analysis when assessing Powell’s value to the Timbers. Whether it’s enough to keep the Timbers from looking to upgrade, however, remains to be seen.
  • Finally, let’s finish with this. Remember that three-man game Savarese set up between Valeri, Blanco, and Adi? It produced this beauty.