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Timber Cruise: LA Galaxy 2, Portland Timbers 1

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MLS: Portland Timbers at Los Angeles Galaxy Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Across MLS it was hard to tell that this weekend was opening weekend. Games were, by and large, far better than the typical Week 1, with standout performances from Columbus, Houston, and NYCFC.

As for the Timbers? Yikes. They looked every bit of Week 1. This team has some work to do.

Let’s cruise.

Deep Cuts

Some days being a centerback is harder than others. I would guess, though, that Sunday was among the more difficult in the long careers of Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala.

Why? Everything around them was an adventure.

Both fullbacks had utter disasters. Marco Farfan had one of his games in which he looked every bit of his age, being eaten alive by Romain Alessandrini (among others) before the Frenchman went off with a hamstring injury. On the other side, Alvas Powell — after a solid-to-good preseason — took his abuse from the rather one-dimensional Ema Boateng, who beat Powell by driving to the byline over and over and over again. Between the two of them, Powell and Farfan won two tackles on the night ... and lost five, four of which were in or around the box.

The defensive midfield didn’t have a disaster, per se, as the Galaxy largely bypassed the central midfield in favor of a more direct approach down the wings, but Guzman and Paredes were hardly helpful in defense. Here’s a map of the combined defensive actions of David Guzman and Cristhian Paredes:

That’s not quite an average outing for Diego Chara. Quite simply, with the central defense under heavy fire largely as a result of the fullbacks being overrun, the defensive midfield did little to provide cover. To update the count, between Farfan, Powell, Guzman, and Paredes, the Timbers’ fullbacks and defensive midfielders had three tackles against the Galaxy.

For much of the evening, then, it was way too easy for the Galaxy to get at the Timbers’ backline. All too often all it took was one or two passes from the Galaxy to be in Jake Gleeson’s box and looking to finish. And if they’d been sharper in doing so, or if referee Jair Marrufo had given at least one of two possible penalties (one of which was stone cold), Sunday would’ve been a lot worse for the Timbers.

This isn’t to let Ridgewell and Mabiala off the hook. Neither were perfect, and the latter was particularly poor before halftime. Both bear some culpability on both concessions. That, however, is mostly just to say the times when the Timbers conceded were the times when Ridgewell and/or Mabiala didn’t bail them out. Those two were not just the last, but often the only effective line of defense for a Timbers team that failed to slow down a Galaxy attack that has struggled to string together effective attacking sequences under even modest resistance.

There are many, many attacking teams in MLS that are a lot better than the Galaxy — and you can bet your rent that it would’ve been a lot worse than 2-1 against any of them. If the fullbacks and defensive midfielders don’t progress considerably — and I mean considerably — from their performance on Sunday, the Timbers will not earn a single point on their season-opening five-game road trip.

Spotlight on...

Sebastian Blanco’s second half, a rare Timbers bright spot on the evening.

Although it was the defense that was putting in a shocker in the first half, the attack was putting in a snoozer. Andy Polo was ineffective. Fanendo Adi was nowhere. Blanco and Diego Valeri had a combined total of five passes in the final third as both came deep to try to find the ball, but couldn’t get the Timbers onto the front foot. The Timbers carved out a fair number of shots in the first half, but, aside from an Andy Polo strike that he put at David Bingham, none of the chances were of any particular quality.

Down 2-0 at halftime, the Timbers badly need a spark plug. And they got Blanco, who almost single-handedly brought Portland within one good bounce of taking a point they had little business stealing. Here’s a map of Blanco’s attacking actions in the second half alone:

To be sure, not all of it came off — as is often the case for attacking midfielders — but enough of it did to make Blanco the Timbers’ most dangerous player. In addition, Blanco had two shots on goal, including the lifeline, and three successful dribbles. It was a stark and welcome contrast to the difficulty Blanco had finding the game in the first half.

The Timbers are going to need a lot more second-half Blanco early this season. Diego Valeri isn’t in his MVP form yet, and Fanendo Adi is barely clinging to his starting spot. If Gio Savarese’s side is going to score goals right now, they seem more likely to come from Blanco than through anybody else.

Stat of the Game

0 — The number of successful tackles the foursome of Alvas Powell, Marco Farfan, David Guzman, and Cristhian Paredes had from 1:09 until 75:23. Tackles aren’t a be-all, end-all stat by any means, and it can be significantly affected by how the opponent approaches its attack. The Galaxy, for instance, basically skipped the central midfield, and simply looked to play directly at or in behind the Timbers’ fullbacks. So the relative inactivity of Paredes and Guzman was understandable in a vacuum. But not getting a single tackle from either the fullbacks or the defensive midfielders for a 74-minute stretch of the game goes to show how non-disruptive those units were.

Finishing Bullets

  • Gio Savarese was fairly upbeat after the game, which was likely a little bit of an effort not to be too down on a Week 1 performance. Fair enough. But he also had cause to be upbeat about the Timbers’ high press, which turned the Galaxy over in their own half repeatedly and was the primary source of the Timbers’ best chance-creation. This is something that Gio has emphasized since essentially the opening day of camp in Tucson, and it clearly a big part of the identity that he wants to establish for his team.
  • There’s an argument, though, that Sunday at Stub Hub Center wasn’t the time and place to press high. The Stub Hub Center’s famously large field leaves huge spaces in which to play direct when an opponent commits to the press, something that the Galaxy did repeatedly on Sunday. And, although we only have preseason evidence to go on, this Galaxy team has shown both an inability to break down a compact defense and a vulnerability on the break. Every new coach comes into MLS with ideas about how they want to play and a determination to impart those ideas on their team — they wouldn’t be hired otherwise. In the process of doing so, however, it seems every new coach also gets drawn into a couple land wars in Asia. Savarese sure did on Sunday evening.
  • Savarese has himself a bunch of lineup selections that will be worth watching over the course of the next week. Adi continued a poor preseason by being a nonfactor in the first half before showing a pulse after halftime. Powell and Farfan entered the day secure in their spots for different reasons, but both had disastrous outings that put them in more precarious positions for the short- and long-term. Andy Polo didn’t give anybody any reason to think he should be ahead of Dairon Asprilla. And neither centerback — although they’ll get more blame this week than they should — shut the door on Julio Cascante.
  • It’s clear, therefore, that Savarese is still in roughly the same spot he was a week ago in trying to figure out his team. That’s okay — it’s only fair to give him time to do so, and there will be plenty of opportunity for refinement on this five-game road spell. But it’s also going to put a ton of pressure on the Timbers to take care of business when they return home.