Just before 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Giovanni Savarese had a difficult choice to make. His Portland Timbers team was in a tough battle with the Colorado Rapids, and due to a red card shown to defender Bill Tuiloma, Portland would have to play the rest of the match with ten men.
Knowing the gravity of the game and the importance of getting a positive result, Savarese made his move under challenging circumstances. In considering what adjustments to make, Savarese shared his process in the postgame press conference.
“We thought about three options,” Savarese said. “Leaving some of the players that we had in. Then a few substitutions.”
Rather than follow the first route, however, the adjustment Savarese made was to prioritize defensive solidity and continuity.
“We felt that at that particular time in the game we needed to be a little more cautious in closing some of the spaces, especially the wide areas,” said Savarese. “That’s why we stayed in the 4-4-1. That’s why we didn’t decide to change into a 4-3-2, which was one of the thoughts we had in order to have an extra forward.”
Josecarlos Van Rankin was subbed on for Yimmi Chara at halftime. An attacker had been sacrificed for a defender. It was a pivotal decision and a key adjustment. And it was one that helped the Timbers to limit Colorado’s attack and ultimately led them to an inspiring and well-fought result.
The move to prioritize defense in the wide areas played out just how Savarese wanted it to. Portland was able to limit Colorado’s wide players to low-percentage crosses, and when funneled inside, the aforementioned 4-4-1 shape afforded the Timbers with extra help in the middle of the park. The effort and execution weren’t lost on the head coach.
“The guys did a good job to be able to manage what came from the wide areas,” said Savarese. “Every time [Colorado] tried to come at us through the middle, then we had a central player stepping to be able to deny those players from finding a ball through. Everybody was very in tune with making sure that we covered each other.”
The move itself only works and we only get that statement if the players on the field were committed to validating it. The remaining ten players on the field wearing Timbers colors did so with all the energy they could muster. The effort was best summed up by midfielder Sebastian Blanco, who was the hero on the night. He scored the stoppage time equalizer to make it 2-2. When summarizing his thoughts about the game, he highlighted Portland’s commitment and togetherness.
“They have a very good team, but we fought a lot,” said Blanco. “We played like a team. Good commitment. Good teamwork. We won a point today.”
The result didn’t just bear out in the anecdotal evidence- they did in the stats and underlying numbers too.
The Rapids peppered the Portland goal with 24 shots but were only able to keep seven of those on target. The visitors rifled off a whopping 43 crosses but only around a third of them found their intended target. Despite the Rapids’ dominance in possession, the man advantage, and influence over the run of play, Colorado mustered 2.0 expected goals, according to MLS soccer. The number is high but much of it was gained off just a handful of chances. The majority of Colorado’s shots and chances were of a low quality and that’s credit to Portland’s defensive commitment.
Of course, Portland’s performance wasn’t perfect. Colorado did find the net on two separate occasions. Once on a well placed through ball that was finished ably and another on an incredible fluke cross that had no business being a goal. Despite the goals’ origins, the Rapids did break past Portland’s defense twice.
But the Timbers responded on both occasions. And they did so by, yes, showing a great deal of grit.
Harken back with me (if you dare) to the last time the Timbers played at home before Wednesday night. That game, of course, was the humiliating 6-2 loss to the Seattle Sounders. But before it was 6-2, it was 2-2. Portland came back from 2-0 down to tie the game and early in the second half looked to be competing for a result.
Instead, they utterly capitulated and allowed Seattle to score four more times before all was said and done. Instead of fighting, heads went down, body language went down the toilet, and it became a bad time for everyone.
Contrast that match with Wednesday night. When faced with a similar situation of being backed against a wall and the result not going their way, the Timbers responded in a very different manner. Instead of heads going down, they didn’t give up. Instead of body language going south, they stayed focused. And instead of capitulating, they turned a game that by all rights should have been a 2-1 loss into a feel good, encouraging 2-2 draw.
It’s cliched as all get out, but that is nothing more than just plain old resilience and belief. Those were all things that have been sorely missing for most of Portland’s season. Importantly, they were things that the Timbers showed in spades on Wednesday night.
It wasn’t a win, which is what Portland desperately need to do in the rest of their home matches if they are to cement their status as contenders, but it almost felt as good as one.
Savarese’s closing comments summed up the significance of the result best.
“It shows the team has character,” said Savarese. “It shows that the guys are working with each other — that there’s unity. Everyone on the bench was ready to step in. Everybody wanted to come into the match and give their part of it to help us achieve what we achieved tonight. So extremely proud and I think we saw a group that was very disciplined to get a good result.”