Thanks to Saturday’s 1-1 draw in Dallas, the Timbers have finally earned a point. They are no longer the worst team in MLS.
1) In terms of actual soccer, the biggest story going into Saturday’s game was Diego Chara’s return to the starting lineup. But in terms of the team as a whole, I’d say the bigger story was Liam Ridgewell’s absence. Not only did he not make the starting lineup, not only did he not make the bench, he didn’t even travel with the team to Dallas. The team’s captain was told to stay home.
To me, this is huge. To me, this is Giovanni Saverese making his first big statement as a coach. And that statement is, I’m not afraid to bench any of you. No one is safe. Don’t give me what I expect? You’re benched. Stay home. Watch golf. When you’re ready to rejoin my team – my team – let me know.
That’s how I’m seeing it, at least. And I gotta be honest, I approve. New coaches can sometimes be a little intimidated by their new surroundings. And I imagine a new coach whose only experience is in the 2nd division could be even more intimidated. But with this one statement, I think Gio’s shown us that he’s not intimidated. He’s willing to bench anyone. Ridgy, Valeri, Adi. Anyone.
Clearly, there’s more to coaching than getting everyone on board. There’s x’s, there’s o’s, there’s formations, there’s game-planning. Gio’s still got to fix a lot of that stuff. But at least at this point we know he’s not going to be a pushover. We know he’s going to lead. And that’s a good start.
2) Speaking of x’s and o’s, I spent my last column blistering Gio over the team’s complete lack of order and organization on the field. I screamed about how they looked like 11 guys with 11 different gameplans, and how Savarese needed to use the bye week turning them into a team.
How did he do? Well, it was mixed. The offense still looked adrift, but the defense actually seemed like a functioning unit. So that’s a start.
Some of that improvement could be due to Diego Chara. He wasn’t quite the destroyer he usually is – and I’ll optimistically blame that on his still getting himself into game shape – but he was still good.
The defense’s improvement could also be due to an extra defensive midfielder. Instead of their usual 4-2-3-1, the Timbers came out Saturday in a 4-3-2-1, and I feel certain that helped a bit.
And yet another possible reason for improvement was the center backs. 100% less Liam Ridgewell, 100% more Bill Tuiloma. And the young Kiwi looked good. I’ll admit, it’s a little weird seeing a short guy play center back, but Matt Besler’s been doing it for years, both with SKC and the USMNT. Could Tuiloma be as good as Besler? Only one way to find out.
So I guess the point of this degree is that, one, the defense was better, and two, there were too many variables for me to really say why. All I know is that I hope it continues.
3) The offense? Much less impressive.
Fun fact: Sebastian Blanco is on pace for 22 goals this year.
Even funner fact: Fanendo Adi is on pace for 22 assists this year.
Fact that is not even the tiniest bit fun: Diego Valeri is on pace for 0 goals and 0 assists.
At what point are we allowed to start worrying about Valeri? I’m not saying I’m worried, I’m just wondering when I should start. Because that time may be soon.
The thing is, it’s not just the numbers that have me worried about Valeri. It’s how lost he looks. He’s not driving the game, he’s not controlling the action. He’s just kind of out there, wandering around.
I need to blame Valeri’s troubles on the new coach and the new system, because the alternative – that Valeri has lost a step – is not something I can handle. I’m not ready for a world in which Diego Valeri is not awesome.
Maybe it’ll all start coming together next week. Saverese seems to have found a plan for the defense. Maybe he’ll spend the next week finding a plan for the offense.
I hope he does, because I made that ridiculous prediction of four double-figure goal scorers. I don’t want to bury that optimism so quickly. This team’s got too much offensive talent to look this mediocre.
4) Let’s take a look at the game’s two goals.
Dallas starting the scoring in the 36th minute.
It’s hard for me to get too angry about this goal. The defense was bottling things up pretty well, then Roland Lamah got a tiny bit of space and unleashed a wonderful strike. An A+ goal in tight quarters from outside the box? Hard to blame the defense too much. It’s soccer. Great goals happen.
For example, one happened in the 47th minute, this time from Sebastian Blanco.
Just like with us, I doubt Dallas fans are getting too angry with their defense over that one. It’s a hell of strike.
One thing I like in this clip is Cristhian Paredes running free down the middle of the field, waving his arm. Love the energy, kid, but if I could make one suggestion it would be to continue that run all the way to goal. Good things happen when you get near goal. I promise.
5) Well, I guess bad things can happen there, too. Just ask Lawrence Olum.
If you ask me, the real story here isn’t the handball itself. It was the decision made in the Univision booth to cut to every camera in the stadium except the ones showing either Olum, the referee, the handball, or the red card. It was an almost perfect storm of not showing us what happened. And I’m pretty sure Olum was back in the locker room, showered, dressed, and talking to his wife on the phone before they put up a graphic stating that, yes, someone, somewhere, had been issued a red card. I applaud you, Univision. Exceptional work.
6) Let’s finish by looking ahead. Our next game is Saturday in Chicago. Clearly Lawrence Olum’s not starting. Who will be?
I gotta tell you, I liked Cristhian Paredes on Saturday. I liked him a lot. Did he earn himself another start? Is there even a place to put him? When David Guzman comes back from international duty, I assume he’ll take his usual spot next to Chara. (Whether Gooz deserves his usual spot next to Chara, I’m not so sure, but I predict he’ll get it, for at least one more game.) Does that mean Paredes hits the bench? Or do we set up in another 4-3-2-1 next week? Will that become our go-to formation this year?
Another spot on the field in question: center back. Like I said earlier, Tuiloma looks like a guy who should be starting. Will he? And if he does, who’s next to him? Has Ridgy served his penance? Has Larrys Mabiala earned another start? Will Julio Cascante ever earn one?
And then there are our fullbacks. Alvas Powell may have injured himself in the 89th minute, you know. Does that mean we’re back to Zarek Valentin and Marco Farfan? They got destroyed by the Red Bulls two weeks ago. Dare we start them again? If Powell’s hurt, we may have no choice.
Who starts up front depends on formation. If we stick with the 4-3-2-1, it’s probably Adi, Valeri, and Blanco. If we go back to the 4-2-3-1, does that mean the incredibly unimpressive Andy Polo? The more impressive Dairon Asprilla? And whither Samuel Armenteros?
Three games into Gio Savarese’s reign, I’m finding it incredibly difficult to predict starters. And you know what? Maybe this is a good thing. Or, at least, not a bad thing. Maybe Caleb Porter was a little too predictable. Maybe some uncertaintly will keep the opponents off-guard, will keep the players working hard in practice, and will give fans like you and me plenty to talk about.