After the high of winning the MLS is Back tournament back in August, the Portland Timbers have had more than a few come-back-to-earth moments. There was the 3-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders to start things off, the disappointing tie to Real Salt Lake to follow that, Sebastian Blanco’s torn ACL in the second Seattle matchup and, most recently, a 4-2 loss to the out-of-form Los Angeles Football Club.
But as our very own C.I. DeMann wrote in Six Degrees this week, the Timbers aren’t necessarily playing horribly. You just have to watch the beautiful 16-pass goal to know that. The problem is that they put together 80–85 minutes of solid soccer only to give up a torrent of goals in those other 10–15 minutes. If you give up three goals in those 10 minutes (like they did against LAFC), then you’re making the beautiful game much too hard on yourself.
“The majority of the match we did great things,” Timbers head coach, Giovanni Savarese, said on Tuesday about the LAFC loss. “And unfortunately for those 12 to 15 minutes that we conceded, we put ourselves in a difficult situation.”
“We have to be better in those critical moments,” midfielder Diego Chara said. “Against L.A. and against Real Salt Lake was the same situation. It was between 10 and 15 minutes and we didn’t do well because we lost too many times the ball, but I think we have to learn from those situations for the next game.”
That’ll have to be the big focus for Portland on Wednesday: How do you put together a complete 90 minutes? The Timbers have given up 15 goals since returning from Orlando — an average of three goals a game. The two goals from RSL that proved to be the equalizers came in extra time in the second half. The LAFC goals came just a few minutes apart. Portland created opportunities for themselves to get back in the LAFC match (the Dario Zuparic header, Diego Valeri’s free kick off the post), but preventing those situations from occurring in the first place is the best way to counter that.
“It’s a situation where we cannot panic,” Savarese said. “We have to stay calm. We have to continue to play the way we have to play. We don’t need to change anything because we conceded at a particular moment...The problem wasn’t the first goal. The problems were the other two that came right after. As soon as we were able to overcome the situation like we did in Orlando the performance was very, very strong.”
Having the MLS is Back tournament MVP forced to watch from the sideline doesn’t make it easier. Blanco is not coming back anytime soon (although thankfully his ACL surgery was successful), and they have to find a way to survive without him. But while Savarese acknowledges the challenge ahead, calling Blanco “a player we cannot replace,” he thinks it’s definitely possible to thrive as opposed to just survive. He pointed to the Seattle win as an example of them putting together the kind of strong performance they’re capable of.
“(Blanco’s) situation is important for us to keep in mind, but it’s an opportunity for other players to step up and play the way they did in Seattle,” Savarese said. “We basically played the entire match without Seba, and the guys were able to work together for a very strong performance and a good win.”
That was a good win for Portland and, while it feels redundant to keep emphasizing this, it wasn’t a bad match against LAFC. But Eryk Williamson — who’s had a fine run of form lately with two goals in his last two games — noted after the loss that he feels they need to step up as leaders, especially the midfield. The overall team struggles coupled with Blanco’s absence only underscores the importance of players stepping up during difficult times.
“In our position, we are really important to keeping the balance of the team and sometimes in some games we lose too many times the ball and that means the other team can control the ball and control the game,” Chara said. “We’re trying to work on that and trying to be better, making better decisions with the ball, and I hope the next game we can show up.”
Luckily Portland’s next match is against the San Jose Earthquakes, who’ve been struggling as of late. They had a good 0-0 draw at home against the LA Galaxy this past weekend, but that was after getting soundly defeated by Seattle 7-1 last Thursday. When a team puts up an American football number on you, that’s not ideal. This team has yet to get a win at home and, if you’re Portland, that’s the perfect team to bounce back against. But Savarese isn’t taking the game lightly, especially as they’ve had to adjust to only being able to practice inside because of the poor air quality. Still, they see the game as an opportunity to get some desperately needed points.
“We make sure that we can get some points against a team that hasn’t been getting very many points...but is still very difficult to play against,” Savarese said. “But still, they’re very difficult to play against, and we expect a very competitive match.”
The Timbers will have 90 minutes tomorrow to get back on track. The only question now is whether they will show up for the whole 90.