With his team trailing 3-1 in the 62nd minute, Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter chose to make a rare triple-sub, removing the few regular starters he elected to play against the Portland Timbers, and replacing them with bench warmers, effectively waving the symbolic white flag for the match.
With the match seemingly in hand, and an away game against Minnesota United just three days later, many in the stadium looked expectantly to Portland’s Gio Savarese for substitutions to protect the lead and rest key players.
65th minute, 70th minute, 75th minute, 80th minute.
Not until the 84th minute did the Portland Timbers make a substitution, taking off starting striker Samuel Armenteros in favor of second-year forward Jeremy Ebobisse, a like-for-like attacking swap. The second and final substitution came two minutes into stoppage time, with forward Lucas Melano replacing Diego Valeri for the final seconds of the match, which ended 3-2, thanks to a second goal from Niko Hansen just moments before the final whistle.
The decision to not adjust to a more defensive approach, and rest Portland’s vital players during a packed week, became a topic of debate among viewers — even sparking a post-game clash on Twitter between former Timbers coverage writer Chris Rifer and the team’s owner, Merritt Paulson.
“[We didn’t make a sub] because we needed to win this game — we’re not thinking about Minnesota,” explained Savarese in the post-game press conference. “For us, it’s important to win this game, and we felt that the guys that were on the pitch, they were doing the job.”
There is a clear rationale for this approach: Providence Park has historically been a stronghold for the Portland Timbers, with just ten combined losses over the past four seasons. Opposing sides are well aware of this, of course, and sometimes opt to cut their losses before the opening whistle by resting starters. Savarese saw an opportunity to take three points in the midst of a tight Western Conference playoff race, and he let his best players see out the match.
But stepping back for the broader context, and questions begin to surface. Portland’s offseason moves — bringing in Giovanni Savarese as the new coach, trading Darlington Nagbe for a truckload of allocation money, using their resources to invest in young depth to support the gradually aging core — was to set up the next generation of Portland Timbers.
To that end, Portland has made progress. The senior roster, as well as the second team, has more depth from top to bottom than in any other season in recent memory.
Fast forward to Saturday night. The Timbers arrived in Minnesota to take on a Loons team that has struggled throughout their first two seasons, had just 30 points heading into the match up with Portland, and sat 10th in the conference. Due to the quick turnaround from the Columbus game, Savarese chose to rotate the squad, placing Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, and Zarek Valentin on the bench, while leaving Larrys Mabiala at home, and deploying some of those important depth pieces and young players in their place. It was by no means a first choice starting eleven, but against a poor side, on the road, this is what depth exists for.
By the halftime whistle, however, Portland had endured an all-out blitz from Minnesota, conceding 13 shots, 8 on frame, and faced a 3-0 deficit, causing coach Savarese to share his rather blunt opinion of the team’s first half: “They were [expletive] terrible,” he told Nat Borchers on live TV.
Portland managed to stem the tide in the second half, thanks in large part to the substitutions of Chara and Valeri into the match. The two veterans helped Portland stabilize the game on both sides of the ball, as Portland held Minnesota scoreless in the second half and pulled two goals back to make the game interesting in the final minutes.
While the result alone was frustrating, the poor performance in the first half raises bigger questions beyond Portland’s playoff contention and 2018 season. The Timbers have been known for relying heavily on their established veterans since their introduction into Major League Soccer, with Savarese’s predecessor Caleb Porter sticking to similar, experienced lineups year over year. But this past offseason was intended to deepen Portland’s rotation, allowing them to contend in the new, more competitive era the league is transitioning into.
Unfortunately, the more things change the more they stay the same. As the first year of the revamped roster draws to a close, Portland still finds themselves relying on a few key players to earn results, even against weaker opponents.
None of this is meant to question the talent or potential of the new players, or the direction that Savarese is leading the team. Every team, without their star players, will be noticeably weaker. But the reality is that the new depth has yet to prove it can step up and provide a competitive game.
Part of this is due to the brilliance of Valeri and Chara over the years; Valeri is still the reigning MVP and one of the most consistently productive designated players in league history. Chara is arguably its best defensive midfielder, and no player has been more vital to his team’s success. When you play alongside such tremendous footballers, even mentally, it can be difficult to look past their absence in the lineup.
But if Portland is to find itself a perennial contender for the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup, new players must step up and take responsibility. Valeri and Chara are 32; Valeri’s pace has slowed noticeably, even compared to the 2016 and 2017 seasons; and Chara, while seemingly the same player he was when he arrived in 2011, will not always be able to sacrifice every ounce of his spirit in each and every match.
In a poll posted to Stumptown Footy’s twitter page, 55 percent of voters felt that Portland’s key players were being played too many minutes, and either just as much or more than in past seasons.
To Savarese’s credit, both Valeri and Chara have actually been played less this season than usual: Valeri has played an average of 82.5 minutes of every game Portland has had this year (third lowest average during his Timbers career), and Chara has played 70.5 minutes of every game, his lowest average going back to 2013. But the progression of the league dictates that Valeri and Chara’s usage doesn’t simply decrease by a minute or two here and there, rather that they can be rested for important matches without sacrificing points during their absence.
It’s possible that a switch will be flipped overnight and the depth will rally to produce the results that they show signs of producing on a regular basis. But, with just four games left, the group as a whole hasn’t proven to their coach or the league that they can hold their own.
Therein lies the rub, as owner Paulson, general manager Gavin Wilkinson, and Savarese find themselves with a roster capable of contention in the short term, but facing a development period of new talent that may require sacrificing valuable points. Is it worth compromising a playoff run in order to allow the team to work through their growing pains?
How Portland manages the balancing act is unknown, but the decisions on how the remainder of the 2018 season plays out may very well dictate the trajectory of the club for years to come.