The preseason has been a tale of two halves for the Portland Timbers.
Over the first four games, Portland looked solid as it amassed a perfect 4-0 record. Everything seemed to be coming together, especially on offense, where the team looked good in possession while executing what they wanted to. But in its final two preseason games, the Timbers went 0-0-2, showcasing some concerning trends as they conceded four more goals than they scored.
“Our preseason’s been very good,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said after the Timbers’ 3-1 loss to New England. “It’s been really, really good besides these past two games. We’ve played very well, but these two games we saw things we need to work on. Nothing to do with the attack going forward. We saw that we’re capable of playing through teams with no problem. Create chances, score goals, but now we need to be much better defensively, which in Costa Rica, we were.”
And that’s the key word: preseason. It’s a time when kinks are supposed to be worked out. There are a few mistakes that warrant discussion, but it’s essentially a test run before results begin to count a week from now when the Timbers open up their season against Minnesota United.
In its first game of the preseason tournament the Timbers defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 and showed off some offensive flair and combination play between midfield and the attack, but also demonstrated some traits of a team that still needs to come together defensively. Portland found some quality moments but allowed Vancouver back into the game relatively quickly by allowing forward Lucas Cavallini a diving header at the near post.
Against Minnesota last Wednesday the Timbers played a solid 35 minutes with an all-reserve team and even took a 1-0 lead before conceding four-consecutive goals to a fast and decisive young team.
In its final preseason game, Portland put together dominant phases of play in the final-third and continued to threaten keeper Matt Turner while keeping the New England Revolution at bay until just before halftime in a 3-1 loss.
Throwing those results aside, all of those games shared a few key trends that will need to be fixed and adjusted over time.
One key problem so far has been the team’s tendency to give up goals at the back-post, often leaving a man or two unmarked. Against New England, Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa both scored at the far post. During the midweek game, the Loons found multiple goals by making far-post runs and receiving tap-ins or other simple finishes.
“No, no. Repeated mistakes,” Savarese said when asked about defensive struggles at the far-post. “Definitely. It’s what you say. That’s why I’m saying it’s my responsibility to fix that, to make it better, to make sure that we don’t concede in that way. Because until that point, we were doing very well. Like last game as well, dominant, playing excellent, being very confident on the ball, conceding a goal and then the game changed. Similar to today. So we need to be much better for sure.”
“I think those goals may be because the winger tried to cover more in that space,” Diego Chara added. “We have this week to prepare that and I think Gio is going to work a lot this week and just try to figure out how to be better in that situation.”
And for as impressive as the offense has looked at times, there are still moments where it seems as if a few more games and trainings will go a long way. For example, a couple of well-worked offensive possessions ended in a low cut-back pass from the byline that made its through traffic, but there was not a Timber player in the vicinity to do anything with it.
“I think it’s recognition of where the players are, not just put the ball where you think that you need to be,” Savarese said. “Of course, we work on that constantly. It’s one of the things that we want to make sure that we improve. I think we have gotten a lot better. But it’s still, I feel, an area in which we can be a little bit more dominant.”
Finally, while the Timbers put together plenty of goals in the preseason, it seems as if a majority scored in the final three preseason games came in ways that are not as reliable. From the five goals scored at Providence Park, one came from the penalty spot, another three came from magnificent individual efforts and skill, and another came off of a defensive mistake.
Obviously, the Timbers will improve in all of those areas over time. As mentioned above, there are still plenty of positives to take away. When the attack was clicking, the team could sustain possession in the attacking-third and look dangerous. There is also plenty of individual talent on this team that should shine through in those moments where a little bit of magic might be necessary. And then there’s the depth of the roster, especially in the attack. Jeremy Ebobisse played limited minutes and looked solid, and that doesn’t even take into account players such as Jaroslaw Niezgoda or Marvin Loria who did not play in any of the teams’ final preseason games.
Now the preseason is over and the Timbers must prepare to face a team in Minnesota United that beat them handily on Wednesday— granted it was mainly the reserves that played. If Portland wants to maintain its undefeated record in home-openers against the Loons they will need to be on top of their game.
This season the Timbers won’t have to deal with a long road stretch or strange schedule to start the season. A week from now the MLS regular season kicks off and, with only the top seeds getting a playoff home game, every game matters.
“I think we’ll have to figure out some situations at the back,” Chara said. “Try to make fewer mistakes because in a game you make mistakes. But the team’s ready. I know the last result wasn’t good, but we have this week to prepare well and to get ready for the first game.”
Added Steve Clark: “I think we let ourselves down in some moments [over the past few games], but other than that I feel pretty good about going back to work next week and getting ready for the home opener.”