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Timber Cruise: Chicago Fire 2, Portland Timbers 2

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MLS: Portland Timbers at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of the capitulation in Harrison, New Jersey, everybody around the Portland Timbers would have eagerly accepted two draws from the team’s next two games on the road. At that point, the Timbers’ form was about as down in the dumps as it gets, and a pair of draws against FC Dallas and the Chicago Fire would’ve represented considerable progress.

And, truth be told, the Timbers’ draws against Dallas and Chicago still represent considerable progress from where the team was in its first two games to open the season and provide genuine reason for optimism going forward. But to let a late lead slip away as the Timbers did in Chicago on Saturday makes that progress feel quite a bit less satisfying.

Deep Cuts

A week ago against FC Dallas the Timbers used a low block to neutralize the (former) Hoops’ pace and technicality and force them to operate in tight spaces in the final third. It worked brilliantly — but for a well-taken Roland Lamah goal, the Timbers very much limited Dallas’s chances and came away with a hardly pretty, but deserved draw.

Tactics, though, are rarely cookie-cutter. Although the Timbers came out in a similar shape against the Fire, their approach was very different. Well, at least for a while.

In the first half, the Timbers pressed the Fire high and forced turnover after turnover in the Chicago midfield. Look at where the Timbers defensive actions took place before halftime in Bridgeview:

As a result, the Timbers largely controlled the run of play — they had the better share of possession and created by far the more dangerous chances. Going into the locker rooms the Timbers were deserved leaders, and were even unlucky not to find themselves up two goals.

It was, in short, the first time this season in which the Timbers looked like the team Savarese has described. Unlike the week before, the Timbers defended from the front-foot, and, as a result, they not only created danger, but they also bottled up their opposition.

Until the second half, that is, when the Timbers shifted back to their lower block.

There were multiple factors at play that caused the Timbers to drop deeper in the second half, including playing into the wind and a game state that required Chicago to push numbers and press higher to try to get back into the game. In a game against a team that had plenty of size and quality up front, but not a ton of athleticism, the Timbers did the Fire a favor by letting those factors drive them to drop into the lower block that worked well against Dallas.

On balance, though, the short-term frustration of letting the Fire and the conditions dictate where the second half was played (and the points that slipped away as a result) should give way to the optimism that springs from seeing Savarese’s side play like the team we all expected for the first time.

To be sure, there remains work to do. And — contrary to one of MLS Twitter’s favorite takes — points dropped in March matter. But the Timbers are making real progress, and they’re seemingly doing so quickly now. The disappointing draw shouldn’t overshadow that.

Spotlight on...

Diego Chara, number six.

Saturday wasn’t the first time we’ve seen Diego Chara serve as a number-six, by any means, but it was the first time under Savarese. Whereas last week the club legend played as one of two eights alongside Lawrence Olum and Cristhian Paredes in central midfield, on Saturday he was a true six, sitting in front of the backline and joy-sticking the attack by distributing from deep.

Look at Chara’s passmap:

That’s exactly the kind of stuff you want from your number-six. Chara was clean in possession, working the ball out to the wings and through the middle when, especially in the first half, the Timbers had numbers advantages in the middle of the park.

As the game went along, however, the Timbers stopped feeding their most reliable distributor, and instead looked to play much more direct in the face of both the Fire’s increasing pressure and a stiff wind. After attempting over 40 passes in the first half (only two of which didn’t find their target), Chara attempted 12 in the second.

At a time when the Timbers should have been prioritizing ball-retention both to take the sting out of the Fire attack and to help them defend higher up the field (you can’t press when your’e constantly just trying to push your lines back up), the Timbers lost their best player at helping them keep the ball.

There will be situations and opponents throughout the season in which the Timbers will want to sit a bit deeper a play more direct. In those games, Chara as a six may not make the most sense, as it makes it more difficult for him to find the ball and puts him in a position in which he can’t take as many ball-winning risks as he normally does.

When the Timbers are trying to dictate the tempo of a game, however, Chara as a six may be the approach that makes the most sense. And because that position demands a little bit less ground-coverage than his usual box-to-box role, it also has the added benefit of giving Chara a little bit more manageable role as he gets deeper into his 30s.

Stat of the Game

12 and 7 — The number of points and results the Timbers have dropped via concessions in the 75th minute or later since the Timbers last scored a late-game goal to turn a result in their favor on June 26, 2016. This was a worrying trend that began under Caleb Porter, and the Timbers would very much like to not see continue under Savarese. The Timbers will very much hope Saturday was an aberration in that respect.

Finishing Bullets

  • He’s rightly been maligned for much of his play to date this season, but Larrys Mabiala was a monster on the defensive end on Saturday. His 11 clearances were as many as the rest of the backline combined, and he led the team with three interceptions and was second to Diego Valeri (wait, what?) in tackles-won. Mabiala still needs to clean up his form on the ball, but Saturday was the kind of standout defensive performance that we came to expect from the centerback in 2017. While his anticipated central-defense partner is clearly on the outs with Savarese, Mabiala seems to be rounding back into form.
  • What a difference a few weeks makes for Marco Farfan, who was both in control defensively and a weapon in the attack on Saturday. The ups-and-downs of youth are to be expected with Farfan, but it was nice to see one of the ups on Saturday after a rough start to the regular season for the young left back.
  • We also got our first meaningful look at Andres Flores on Saturday, and it’s clear it won’t — nor should it — be our last. Throughout the first half Flores was a vital cog in a Timbers central midfield that dominated the Fire. Although Flores was much less active in possession after halftime, he found his place to make an impact with a great run and cross to Sebastian Blanco for the Timbers’ second goal. He was, however, one of a handful of players who bore some culpability on the Fire’s late equalizer when Brandon Vincent beat him to the header, so Saturday wasn’t an unequivocal success for Flores. But if there were any questions about whether Flores can be a contributor for the Timbers this season, he pretty well answered those against the Fire.
  • Speaking of the handful of players who bear culpability on the late equalizer, a lot of the Twitter chatter focused on Jake Gleeson after the game. Here’s the play:
  • There’s a fair amount of non-scandalous culpability to go around. It starts with Cristhian Paredes, who was slow to recognize the space that Bastian Schweinsteiger was settling into on the throw-in and didn’t exactly hurry out to provide some ball-pressure once he did see it; continues to Zarek Valentin, who didn’t do enough to provide an aerial presence in an area for which he’s primarily responsible; and Flores, who got beat by Vincent. These are all mistakes, but, in the grand scheme of things, they’re not glaring ones.
  • If Gleeson bears any culpability, it’s pretty marginal. Some faulted Gleeson for failing to come out on Schweinsteiger’s cross, but given that he started more or less in the middle of the goal, the possibility that Gleeson could have 1) made a read on the cross with the wind swirling; and 2) made a play on a ball that ended up beyond his back-post and seven yards out is pretty remote in light of the well-driven cross the former German international whipped in (I timed the total flight time at about two seconds). Others faulted Gleeson for basically the opposite: For not staying at home and cheating farther to his back-post. But Gleeson did stay at home and was in a decent spot to have an opportunity to make a save — in fact, he may have even got a hand to the ball. Vincent’s finish, however, was a textbook header driven with force down into the ground to make for a really difficult save of a bouncing ball from close range. The simple reality is given the way he hit it, unless Vincent drove the ball straight at Gleeson, it was always going to be a difficult save.
  • Gleeson has done little to prove he’s better than a league-average goalkeeper over the course of the last year-plus, and there’s a lot to support an argument that he’s less than average. Moreover, the stain of Gleeson’s late-2016 DUII doubtlessly lingers for many fans for understandable reasons. To focus on Gleeson for the Timbers’ dropped result on Saturday, though, is simply unfair. While there is some culpability to go around for the Timbers, by far the biggest factors on the play were Schweinsteiger’s excellent ball and a clinical finish from Vincent.