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One Big Tree: Refocused, Revitalized... and Resurgent?

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On pleasant surprises and getting back to their roots (with more to prove).

MLS: Portland Timbers at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

A month ago we were all ready to bury the Portland Timbers. The Timbers were coming off bad blowout losses to the Seattle Sounders and Austin FC and weren’t showing any signs that they could pull themselves together. The season felt like it was on the brink of disaster and we all braced ourselves for the worst.

Since that point, Portland has rattled off three straight wins on the road, scored five goals, conceded none, notched two signature rivalry victories, and earned ten points, boosting them to fifth in the Western Conference.

Exactly like we all expected, right?

CANADA-VANCOUVER-FOOTBALL-MLS-VANCOUVER WHITECAPS VS PORTLAND TIMBERS
Hugs going all around these days with the boys in green.
Photo by Andrew Soong/Xinhua via Getty Images

Portland’s turnaround over the past three weeks has been an impressive resuscitation of a season that appeared to be teetering on collapse. Just as the Timbers deserved the questions and criticisms lobbed at them back when it was going poorly, they deserve praise and recognition now that they’re getting back on track.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the Timbers were a disjointed, unorganized mess, that didn’t provide enough pressure to the ball and were losing easily, and often badly. Well, now I am here to say that Portland has given me a pleasant surprise by turning into a cohesive, organized, and gritty team that has gutted out multiple tough wins on the road.

I know it’s cliched, but a good deal of this comes down to focus. Portland wasn’t doing the little things right and it was compounding into disastrous errors. The Timbers players and staff needed to understand and do their individual jobs on the field and hone in on what makes this team, y’know, a competent soccer team.

And that’s pretty much what head coach Giovanni Savarese credits the turnaround in mentality to. In his postgame presser on Friday, he outlined what happened between the Seattle game and now to spark the change in attitude.

“We had a lot of conversations,” said Savarese. “We felt that we went a little bit away from who we are, and we needed to make sure that each player understood again their role. In those conversations and the work on the field, we built up again who we are.”

Getting back to who Savarese’s Timbers are- organized, committed and dynamic when they want to be- is a big part of it. Another equally big part is X’s and O’s on the field and the team getting their shape right. Below is Portland’s passing network from their 1-0 win against Vancouver. It shows both the frequency by which players passed to each other and also their relative average positions on the field.

For a game that was relatively even for a little over an hour, that’s a pretty decently balanced shape, particularly in the midfield. Midfield pressure and rotations have been the root of many of the Timbers’ ills this season. And the spacing between George Fochive and Diego Chara has been steadily improving for the past two matches and it showed on Friday.

It’s also worth pointing out that Chara has shifted deeper. He has been positioned more like a true number six rather than a box-to-box midfielder. Giovanni Savarese decided to play him as more of a number eight earlier in the season for... some reason. That shift likely has had an influence on Portland’s increased defensive stability just as Sebastian Blanco’s dynamic play has lead to more offensive intensity.

These things have combined to make Portland one of the most in-form road teams in the league. Getting results on the road is very difficult in MLS and the Timbers have won three away matches in a row. It hasn’t been pretty but this team needed results and competent performances to restore some faith and confidence. They got them both over the past three weeks.

Is that enough to make me believe the Timbers have truly turned a corner? Is a month’s worth of positive performances enough to outweigh two-thirds of a season’s worth of woes? Well... I’m not sure I’m quite there yet.

The underlying numbers of the past three matches have improved (expected goal difference of +0.9, baby!), but Portland still gave up roughly one expected goal a game. And if it wasn’t due to some timely interventions from posts, or some spectacular Steve Clark saves, or a well-placed Claudio Bravo, we might be having a different conversation now.

The reality is that these past three weeks showed us that Portland is still in this race. But it didn’t show us that they can win it. At least, not yet. The next task is to prove that this turnaround is sustainable and that positive performances are now the norm, not an outlier. Portland has an excellent opportunity to do so over the next two weeks with three home games against playoff rivals up next. How well those games go will tell us a lot as to whether we can truly start to dream about making some noise in the playoffs, not just simply qualify for them.

Giovanni Savarese and the players deserve credit for refocusing as a team and revitalizing the season. The next step is proving that this team can maintain this resurgent form and challenge when it comes playoff time.

Stats, Stems, and Leaves

  • Friday marked the first three-game streak of any sort of positive results for the Timbers this season, as well as their first three-game win steak this season.
  • Portland has posted shutout wins in three consecutive road games for the first time since 2007.
  • Sebastian Blanco has had a hand in contributing to four of Portland’s last five goals, stretching back to the win in Seattle.
  • Jaroslaw Niezgoda has played eight minutes since his return from injury. He has been listed as available for Portland’s last six matches but has only appeared twice.

Moment in the Shade

Friday was Diego Chara’s 300th league appearance for the Timbers. His club legend status needs no rehashing. He is as close as you can come to being “Mr. Timbers”. Chara is literally the last player standing on the roster from the Timbers’ start in MLS back in 2011. He has played the most games for the club in MLS and has pretty much locked up his status as one of the best defensive midfielders to ever play in the league.

Friday was an important milestone not just in the career arc of the Godfather but also in his arc for this season. As of late, many were speculating whether Chara had lost a step and were worried that Chara’s best days were behind him.

Well, these past few weeks have silenced some of those speculations. Chara’s recent performances must have been from the wine cellar because they have been absolutely vintage.

Friday was no exception. Diego Chara was excellent in the middle of the park against the Whitecaps. He recorded the highest number of pressures and the highest number of successful pressures to win the ball for the Timbers that night. He was metronomic in relieving pressure, completing the most number of passes out of any player on the field.

In short, Diego Chara looked like Diego Chara.

Despite also having the captain’s armband, Chara is leading this team by example, with his actions and work on the field. I hope we can all recognize that. And just like enjoying a fine vintage, I hope we can all sit back and appreciate it while it lasts.