Welcome to Forest for the Trees, a space where I take a look at something unnoticed or underreported from the week that was for the Portland Timbers. This week, we’re taking a peek at the final month and change of Portland’s regular season.
Folks, we have a finish line.
The biggest challenge in conceptualizing the 2020 MLS season for the Portland Timbers (besides, y’know, the whole global pandemic disrupting life as we know it thing) was not knowing how long it was going to last. After the MLS is Back tournament, the league released matchdays of the season restart in a piecemeal format — only a half-dozen games at a time — with a promise of more to come.
Fans could be forgiven if they were doubtful that more games even would come, thinking that COVID-19 might shut the whole league down again. It was like the world’s worst game of telephone: you know the words are coming, but don’t know what words you’re going to hear, and you’re worried they’re going to leave you shocked and kind of scared.
Well, the games did indeed come. Last Tuesday, the Timbers announced their remaining nine games to close out the 2020 regular season, finally revealing a finish line for the bizarre exercise in resilience that has been this season.
Now that we know when and where it’s ending, we can start to analyze the rest of the season and what it means for the Portland Timbers. There’s some significant challenges for the team, but also genuine opportunities to learn things over the course of the next nine games to help going into 2021.
Of course any discussion of the rest of the season has to start with the season to date. So let’s start off with...
Good news everyone: the Portland Timbers won a trophy in 2020!
Winning the MLS is Back Tournament is an accomplishment that should be celebrated. In this bizarre and utterly abnormal 2020 season, the Orlando tournament represented a major trophy. There was prize money, a piece of silverware, and a CONCACAF Champions League spot at stake. Every MLS side went down there to win and took it seriously (heck, Atlanta even fired their dang coach because of it). It was a big trophy, and the Portland Timbers won it all.
Because of that, I think we can view the outcome of the 2020 MLS season as a net positive (in relative terms). This is already a weird season, so getting to say you won a trophy during it feels pretty good. And because of that, the success of this season isn’t wholly contingent upon making the playoffs.
The goal of the team for this season — and every season — should be to make the playoffs and make a decent run, full stop. That holds true this season. However, even if their playoff run isn’t the deepest, the Timbers can still hold their heads high knowing they have a trophy in the closet. Also, Portland losing probably their best player in Sebastian Blanco for the year means that this team will never be at its peak capacity this season, to add just a little more context for the rest of this year.
So it’s not make or break, but there is still some pressure on this team to make a postseason run, especially with two-thirds of the West making the playoffs this season. And like all things MLS, this isn’t going to be a walk in the park. Let’s talk about…
Are y’all ready for seven games in 25 days? Because the Portland Timbers have seven games in 25 days.
Any analysis of the challenges of the remainder of the regular season has to start with the upcoming month. MLS has packed seven games into the four weeks of October, which presents some big hurdles for the team. With over 600 minutes of soccer on varying surfaces on deck for the next month, there will be plenty of rotation and load management. What we don’t want to see is 11 guys with dead legs dragging themselves across the field and not knowing how to attack, like we saw the Whitecaps do against the Timbers last night.
This will give Giovanni Savarese and company some headaches in choosing which games to prioritize and how to keep balance in the roster while being successful. The next 30 days or so will greatly impact whether Portland will keep pace with their opposition and firmly land in the playoffs, or if they’ll struggle just to sneak in.
Speaking of opposition, those guys look familiar. The hyper-regionalization of the season means that eight out of the remaining nine games will be against teams Portland has previously played in the past month. Playing the same team in a short timespan can have its advantages (hi San Jose!), but also its drawbacks. Teams have more recent footage to analyze, have a better memory of how you handle certain game states, and overall can plan better to face you.
And the opposition is no slouch either. Every team Portland faces is within just six points of the playoff line at time of writing — yes, including San Jose. The weird narrative this season is that no one is really out of it, even after a mini-death spiral. So every team Portland faces will have something to play for, and will come out firing.
And fire, they can:
A RECORD BREAKING night for @LAFC!— Major League Soccer (@MLS) September 24, 2020
▪️ MLS record 5 goals in opening 33 minutes
▪️ Largest margin of victory in franchise history (6-0)
▪️ @BWPNINENINE moves up to 6th on all-time MLS scoring list (115) pic.twitter.com/33ysE6cXNV
Even a team that is having as shaky a season as LAFC — a team Portland plays twice over the next nine games — can still blitz you. If you were keeping track, that was five goals in just over thirty minutes they dropped on Vancouver, a team that Portland scored once on last night. Portland needs to remain focused for the rest of the season, and really can’t take any games off.
The road will be challenging, but that’s not to say that it won’t be without benefit. As long as Portland can take advantage of...
Having a compressed schedule presents some opportunities for Portland to learn more about its team going into next season, even with their prime playmaker sidelined.
The aforementioned rotation means that the Timbers will be utilizing their depth for the rest of this season, and that means seeing players that may not normally see as much time in a conventional regular season. We’re already seeing some of it with the forward corps, and it’s playing dividends. All three of Jeremy Ebobisse, Jaroslaw Niezgoda, and Felipe Mora have been starting and playing, and all three have been scoring. This allows attackers get reps while also helping the team learn new ways to attack and score goals, and it will continue in the coming weeks. It is still an open question as to what Portland’s “first choice” XI is, but at the moment, having multiple forwards scoring multiple goals is a nice thing to see.
In addition, it’s also allowed us to see which of the primarily reserve players have made a jump and could potentially be part of the rotation next season. The rotation thus far has had positive signs already, particularly on defense. The Timbers have played four different center back combinations over their past four games, and have given up just two goals. After some early season shakiness, it appears that all four of the central defender rotation players can and will contribute going forward.
Also, young players have stepped up in the back. Pablo Bonilla looks to have all the hallmarks of a Timbers-style right back, and looks to be improving every game. Marco Farfan has somewhat quietly turned in three very solid defensive efforts lined up as both a left back and right back. The 21-year-old Homegrown might finally be showing some signs of consistency and the ability to be a contributor in the back, a major boon for the team. I can only expect we’ll see more of both of them as we enter the stretch run, and I’m not complaining one bit.
It also might give us some definitive statements on players that have been question marks up until this point. Can Tomas Conechny be the heir apparent for Diego Valeri in the middle of the pitch that he was signed to be? Early returns are... discouraging thus far. More games and reps (or lack thereof) will be telling to what his future with the Timbers is. And what of Cristhian Paredes, a player who showed so much promise last season but seems to have regressed in 2020? More games may be the thing to help him build his confidence back, or it could be the thing that shows the coaching staff all they need to see. Either way, the finishing run of 2020 will go a long way to answering questions on these and potentially other players.
All in all, these final two months will be fast and furious. Balancing the abundance of double-game weeks, travel, and general madness of MLS means that there will be no relaxing lead in to the end of the season. It will most likely be somewhat controlled chaos to the end.
That’s not to say it will be all bad. Being able to see bench players step up is an encouraging sight, and after coming out of the gate stumbling, Portland has turned in some very encouraging performances lately, particularly on defense. They stand tied for the top spot in the West, and have earned it too.
So buckle up and settle in, because this crazy 2020 season is coming in for a landing real soon, and it’s going to be a bit of a wild ride.