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Forest For the Trees: Breaking down Bonilla’s solid night

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The numbers behind Bonilla’s first MLS minutes of 2021, and what the impact his performance could mean.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

It’s back! Forest for the trees is your weekly(ish) look at something initially overlooked or underreported in Timbers-land that deserves a bit more of a spotlight. This week, we break down Bonilla’s performance Saturday night, and what it could mean for Portland’s busy stretch ahead.


The Portland Timbers rolled the dice a bit in their clash against the Houston Dynamo on Saturday night. Giovanni Savarese made the decision to give some regular starters a rest and change up his lineup, and considering the Timbers were looking to rebound from an opening day faceplant while playing at home, it was a bit of a gamble.

The result of that gamble was a big payoff, as the rotated lineup held their own and did enough to earn a 2-1 victory to open up home MLS play for Portland. Many role players stepped up to give solid performances against an improved Houston side, in what turned out to ultimately be a pretty impressive result.

One player who put in a particularly impressive shift was 21-year-old right back Pablo Bonilla. Saturday was not only his first start of 2021, but his first MLS appearance of the season. And with the 81 minutes he got, Bonilla put on a strong performance at both ends of the pitch, leaving the match as one of the standouts of the night.

The young Venezuelan defender was Portland’s first choice right back for the 2020 season, but with the acquisition of Josecarlos Van Rankin this offseason, Bonilla has been relegated to a reserve role thus far in 2021. Saturday was his first real opportunity to show what he can bring to the field- and boy did he bring it.

From the jump, Bonilla was his usual active and buzzing self on the right side, repeatedly bombing forward to attempt to link up with the fluid front line of Yimmi Chara and Blake Bodily. He made himself a nuisance to the Houston defense early and often, and we all saw how that ended up:

That goal shows that Bonilla is picking up right where he left off on the attacking side of the ball. We knew that he was nifty with his feet, but Bonilla showed that he may have added “embarrass a defender with a feint” to his locker on Saturday. On top of that, he delivered a cross to a dangerous location to bag his first assist of the year, which already matches his total number of assists from last season.

All of the above was known, and up until Saturday night was thought to have been the main strength and contribution of Bonilla’s game. But last weekend’s victory showcased the increased growth and acumen Bonilla is gaining on the defensive side of the ball as well.

From the macro level, Bonilla did an admirable job of dealing with Houston’s dangerous and active wingers. He started the night defending Tyler Pasher (who would wind up giving his fullback partner Claudio Bravo fits later on), and then spent most of the match keeping tabs on Fafa Picault. Both of those players are technical and dangerous with the ball in front of them racing towards goal — and Bonilla handled them both.

An attacker didn’t get past Bonilla on the night, according to FBref.com. For reference, Bravo was dribbled past four times on the night, which was the most that any player was directly beat for either team. Houston did wind up targeting Bravo more often than Bonilla with the majority of their attacks, but that doesn’t dismiss the times that Bonilla handled his attacker well, forced them into a regressive pass, or eventually won the ball outright.

In addition to direct challenges, the numbers show how effective Bonilla was in conventional defensive pressures as well. Again leaning on FBref.com, Bonilla directly pressured the ball 16 times on Saturday, and helped his side successfully win possession on nine of those occasions, good for a 56% success rate. That number was the second highest success rate for any player on the Timbers, and highest out of all of the starters. It shows how Bonilla was both a confident individual and team defender on the night, and played was a prominent reason why Houston’s attack died off as the game closed.

All in all, the numbers and the eye test shows that Bonilla put in one of his best defensive shifts for the Timbers on Saturday. And that could be a fairly significant deal for the Timbers this season, especially in light of their current roster status.

Earlier last week, the unfortunate news broke that backup left back Ismalia Jome tore his Achilles in training and would be out for the rest of the season. It was a brutal blow to both player and club, and it now leaves the Timbers bereft of their left back depth. Bravo is the starter, but after him, the next natural candidate for left back is Josecarlos Van Rankin ... who is the starter at right back.

It creates a conundrum for the Timbers, but one that is more manageable if Bonilla continues his trajectory. If Bonilla can continue to put in shifts like Saturday night, he will continue to give the coaching staff confidence in his abilities to do a job. Thus, he could become a regular part of the fullback rotation, wherein he could start in place of Van Rankin as he did on Saturday, as well as start opposite him if Van Rankin slots in at left back in place of Bravo. While we have no on-field evidence yet, Bonilla could also theoretically step up to start in place of Bravo, should the need arise.

This could be especially useful over the next two weeks, as the Timbers are about to manage a gauntlet of four games over eleven days, which includes a trip to Dallas and a pivotal clash at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. It will truly be all hands on deck for the Timbers, and the more players that can perform well, the better it will go.

And Saturday night showed us that Pablo Bonilla, among others on the field that evening, may very likely be relied upon to be one of those players to step up. And if his numbers from Saturday continue, then signs point to him being ready for the task.