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One Big Tree: Finishing with a Flourish

On poetic parallels, platonic ideals and revival.

SOCCER: NOV 07 MLS - Austin FC at Portland Timbers Photo by Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Portland Timbers wrapped up their 2021 MLS regular season campaign with a three-goal blowout, a record number of total wins, a first-round home playoff game, and some decent momentum going into the postseason. So, y’know, just like we all thought things were going to end back in the summer.

There will be time to spill more digital ink about what this regular season means in the context of the playoffs and prognosticate around how far the Timbers can go based on that. But it’s worth it to reflect upon where the Timbers’ season was a few months ago and on how far they have come since then.

It is a fitting poetic parallel that the exclamation point on the regular season came against the same Austin FC team that embarrassed the Timbers three months ago, in a game that was as close to the platonic ideal of a Timbers performance as you can get.

The counter attack looked as good as it has all season, with a lovely new added wrinkle of a selective and effective high(ish) press. The Timbers came into Sunday with a game plan of forcing the ball onto Austin’s foot and then making it hard for them to go anywhere or do anything with it.

Their execution of that game plan is reflected in the defensive chalkboard from Sunday. Look where Portland’s successful tackles and interceptions were:

Almost half of those successful defensive actions took place in Austin FC’s half of the field. It’s not exclusively where Portland tried to win the ball, nor is it indicative of a broader high-pressing scheme, but it does reflect the strategy Portland was trying to implement and is a data point that demonstrates where Portland was pressing to win the ball.

Another data point, and one that shows how effective the press was, is the first two goals Portland scored. Both were created by the strategic pressing of Austin’s backline. The first goal of the game was created by Santiago Moreno forcing our old friend Julio Cascante into a bad giveaway:

The second goal also featured Moreno. This time he pressed Brad Stuver into a less than ideal pass which Yimmi Chara was fully prepared to pounce on:

In handling both their defensive duties and converting them into attacking opportunities with aplomb, the Timbers put a rubber stamp on the type of team they have become and showed how lethal they can be. Austin’s almost dogmatic devotion and insistence on trying to dominate possession and play out of the back made it easy for Portland, but as has been the story all season long, despite the situation the Timbers still had to capitalize and they did so supremely well.

It feels fitting that one of the high points of Portland’s season was delivered via defeating a team that delivered one of the lowest points of Portland’s season. On August 21, Portland went down to Texas and got their butts kicked and had all of their woes exposed on the day.

Here’s what I wrote about the Timbers after that game:

“With two-thirds of a season’s worth of inconsistent performances as evidence, it is a fair question to wonder how much is being done by Giovanni Savarese and his staff to address Portland’s consistent issues effectively. The problems are clear and they’ve been clear for some time now.”

I wasn’t sure Portland’s issues could be rectified by the current regime. I thought the season was just about lost and I think most Timbers fans thought the same.

But the Timbers themselves didn’t think so. Since that 3-1 loss, the Timbers rattled off a 10-3-1 record, which included notching a +16 goal differential over that period. More importantly, the types of performances they put in were industrious, determined and marked by some pretty dang good sequences of play.

I know I’ve written some version of the above paragraph a lot over the past few months but it bears highlighting: the Timbers revived their season with authority from September until now. Not only did this team right the ship enough to make the playoffs, but did so in fairly strong standing and convincing fashion.

Of course, it might not mean anything by the end of this year. We could be here two weeks from now lamenting how Portland couldn’t shake their bad habits and fell flat on their face at home in the playoffs (we’ve seen it before!).

But for now, it’s worth it to give credit where credit is due. Giovanni Savarese and company pulled things together when times were rough and the group collectively fought their way back to close out a tough regular season.

And now the season that matters, the one that can net a trophy, comes next.

Stats, Stems, and Leaves

Moment in the Shade

There was too much Good Timbers Stuff (™) from this past week, so here’s a good ol’ hat trick of end of regular season high notes:

  • Santiago Moreno had maybe his best ever game in a Timbers shirt. His movement off the ball appears to make him a key fit for the counterattacking scheme and he continues to look dangerous with the ball at his feet. He’s going to be an X-factor off the bench (or maybe even starting) in the playoffs.
  • An unsung hero of the backline? Dario Zuparic. Portland’s Croatian center back has been a mainstay in the defense and has quietly turned in a series of solid shifts. His game against Austin was perhaps one of his best yet. He anchored a backline that barely let Austin get a whiff of the goal until garbage time.
  • THE YEAR OF DAIRON ASPRILLA, now with a well-deserved belt:

Side note: if Asprilla scores another bicycle kick in the playoffs, the team name must be changed to “Dairon Asprilla FC”. Them’s the rules.