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In defeat, Portland finds something to build on

Signs of progress in the evolution of Portland’s style of play

photo by Kris Lattimore

Rising up from the east side of Providence Park are steel beams, cement pillars, and various supplies that are part of the construction of the new stadium decks, a multi-million dollar venture that will add thousands of seats to the historic downtown stadium.

For anyone that witnesses the work on a weekly basis, the ebb and flow of progress can be fascinating. Some weeks, one will wonder if any headway has been made at all; other weeks, the construction seems to leap forward practically overnight. It’s expensive, at times inconvenient, and you can’t always see the end result by staring at it on any given week. But anyone who understands construction can tell you that real work is being done to lay the foundation for something bigger and better to come.

Less than 30 yards away from the rising structure, a different construction is happening for Portland on the pitch — and in many ways it mirrors that of the stadium. It is at times frustrating and at times promising, it can feel costly, but it is ultimately invaluable.

On Sunday night, the Portland Timbers fell to the Seattle Sounders 0-1 at Providence Park after an own goal by defender Julio Cascante. The defeat, which lengthens Portland’s losing streak to four games and vaults Seattle past the Timbers into a playoff spot, will leave a bitter taste in the mouth of Portland supporters for quite some time. There is more to consider in the aftermath of the match than purely the win/loss column, however.

As the 15-game unbeaten streak was nearing its end, casual observers and pundits alike had noted the areas of concern: The defense was making fundamental mistakes, the previously potent attack had slowed considerably, and the teams Portland faced, especially weaker sides, were not being dominated by a Timbers squad that should have run away with the matches.

It all came crashing down against Vancouver, but the outlook following that game contrasts significantly with the post-game following this Cascadia rivalry game: There is a level of satisfaction with how the team played.

I was very proud of the work that the guys did,” said coach Giovanni Savarese, after the match. “We played basically in [Seattle’s] half the entire second half until the goal came —then it became difficult. Until that moment, we played very well.”

The numbers certainly support Savarese’s perspective. Portland out-possessed Seattle in the second half by a whopping 62.7 to 37.3 percent, ending the game with an overall 55 percent of the possession. It wasn’t empty possession along the backline either: Passing touch-maps from the game show the Timbers held a majority of possession through the second half in the attacking side, swinging the ball through the midfield and probing a compact Sounders defense.

POR’s successful passes (green) and key passes (yellow)
via and Opta Sports

For most of the season, Savarese has had to choose between two fundamental traits he wants instilled into the Timbers: Either he gets possession from soccer that fails to create threatening chances, or Portland plays attacking soccer that cedes possession to the other side. On Sunday night, Portland passed the eye test as a team that controlled and attacked. They looked the better team — out-possessing, out-passing, completing more passes, holding a higher accuracy percentage, and out-shooting Seattle, both inside and outside of the box.

All that was missing was the goal for the home side.

“The numbers are good to be able to say that we dominated the game, but it doesn’t give you three points,” Savarese acknowledged, “We need to score goals but we can work towards that.”

The reality of a game dominated on paper and through an eye-test but lost in the end is likely not a great comfort to fans who are eager to see the club return to their winning ways. The progress towards executing the fundamentals is the silver-lined cloud, though: If you play the right way, consistently, the results will follow. And for first-year head coach Savarese, it’s an important step in the construction of a winning club.

“I think it’s an evolution of what we have to be,” explained Savarese. “While we’re becoming that team that can play with possession, sometimes we’re going to have hiccups. Today, we had a hiccup in a game that we looked very good in.”

The game doesn’t erase every question mark that’s been haunting the Portland Timbers recently, however. Offensively, Portland has lacked a spark, scoring just two goals in the last four matches. Seattle owns the league best record for goals allowed, with just 26 on the season, but the Timbers need to find a way to score against strong defenses. The home team squeezed off 22 shots — nearly quadruple what they allowed their Seattle counterparts — but even their quality opportunities were shut down, often by valiant individual efforts that resulted in blocked shots.

POR’s shots (dark green) and SEA’s (light green)
via and Opta Sports

When it comes to chances created, Portland could likely have found the back of the net a couple of times. A rested Diego Valeri created seven chances, more than double Seattle’s entire team output (at three), and the team successfully pressured Seattle off the ball for quick opportunities throughout the game. Again, the foundation for creating opportunities was there — all the Timbers were missing was hitting the back of the net.

Where that final piece comes from is yet to be seen. It could be from current attacking players like Samuel Armenteros and Sebastian Blanco finding a hot streak, or Diego Valeri rediscovering the impressive form from his 2017 MVP campaign. It could be from formation shifts that see a player like Andy Polo push more into attack after serving more in a defensive role over the past month. Or it could be from young players who haven’t seen time with the senior team, such as Jeremy Ebobisse and Foster Langsdorf — especially with how little attacking depth Savarese has on the bench (made clear in the second half by the unexpected substitution of Blanco). Or it could be from Lucas Melano and Jorge Villafana in the coming weeks that provides some spark and new facets to Portland’s attack.

Regardless of where the answer comes from, beneath the disappointment of the result lies a level of satisfaction with the direction of the squad. The foundation has been laid, the evolution continues, and Portland turns their focus from fundamentals to securing a result Wednesday night vs Toronto FC.