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One Big Tree: Scorin’ in the Rain

On a cautious foray, beautiful things, and picking up where we left off.

MLS: New England Revolution at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

One Big Tree is back! Inspired by the great Scott Van Pelt’s “One Big Thing” segment, this is your weekly(ish) look back at an emotional through-line from the week that was in the world of Portland Timbers.

This week- the home opener.

When we last left Providence Park, back in MLS Cup, it was wet, cold, windy, gray, and loud. And on the home opener last Saturday night, the stadium was just how we left it — wet, cold, and gray. And boy, did it get loud.

When we last left the Portland Timbers, back in MLS Cup, they were a team that showed grit and heart right up to the very end, rescuing a draw and coming oh so tantalizingly close to victory. And at the home opener last Saturday, the Timbers seemed to be right where we left them — showing grit and heart and rescuing a draw while coming just short of victory.

The Timbers 2-2 draw with the New England Revolution last week was not just a very entertaining game of soccer to raise the curtain on the 2022 season. It was the first cautious foray back into a world that some of us as fans were hesitant to enter again — for a variety of reasons.

Concering the product on the field, what we found was a team that still doesn’t quite yet feel whole, but does feel confident and capable. And, perhaps most importantly, has shown the skill to back up those feelings.

Need proof of that? May I present Exhibit A: Yimmi “hey Dairon, watch this” Chara.

The Yimmi beautiful golazo was the equalizer in a game in which Portland’s performance decidedly deserved at least as much. It was emblematic of the level that Portland hit, especially in the second half. The intensity that the Timbers were able to exhibit basically everywhere on the field as they chased an equalizing goal (twice) was impressive, especially considering who wasn’t on the field.

The Timbers were missing their starting center back tandem, their leading goal scorer from last season, and had their 2021 assist leader limited to just a cameo. They were facing a record-breaking Revs side that had essentially just reloaded. They went down a goal — twice.

And despite all that, the Timbers were able to show that signature grit and resilience that colored so much of their 2021. Despite missing key pieces and leaders, they played like a team with confidence and backed it up with production.

The dual playmakers of Yimmi Chara and Santiago Moreno came alive in the second half, finally exploiting the space in behind the Revolution’s defense that was there for the taking. Dairon Asprilla decided that the Year of Dairon is just going to have to keep on rolling. Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes were in sync and covered basically the entire midfield all by themselves. This was not a team papering over holes. It was a team that knows themselves and trusts each other.

Moreno’s trajectory, especially, projects as a beautiful thing for the Timbers. He’s a dynamic and explosive playmaker that appears to be improving basically every time he steps on the field. The reason that Blanco’s limited impact hasn’t been a detriment so far is that Moreno has picked up that playmaking burden. He has some defensive tracking issues to work out, but considering he is still just 21 years old his upside appears to be sky high. Especially if he can keep playing amazing passes like this one:

As good as the Timbers’ performance was, we are obligated to point out it wasn’t a win. New England is probably going to be pretty good this year, but for an expected goals battle that Portland won (by a large margin depending on where you look), the Timbers have got to be at least a touch disappointed they couldn’t snag a win over the Revs at home.

The Revs’ second goal especially showed some frailties around the defense. Zac McGraw had a solid outing on the night (more on him in a bit), but in the buildup to the goal he overcommits slightly, leaving just a bit of space for DeJuan Jones to run in behind which allowed him to get a step on McGraw to send in the ball for Sebastian Lletget. How free Lletget got in the box should also furrow some brows among the coaching staff and give the team plenty to review and practice during training this week.

But before we close the book on it, let us recognize the performance that was put in on Saturday. On the back of a season ending in heartbreak, and after an offseason in which Portland waved goodbye to a club legend, when they took the field again the Timbers looked a team that has grit, talent, and perhaps a higher floor than many thought.

So in a way, it feels like we’re picking up right where we left off.

Stats, Stems, and Leaves:

  • Santiago Moreno recorded his third assist in just over 400 regular season minutes played in his MLS career. If he continues this production, he will be in the conversation for Young Player of the Year soon.
  • I think the new jerseys looked pretty. They aren’t perfect, but I think they’re well done, they have a story and they were loads more interesting than what Portland’s opponents were wearing.

Moment in the Shade

The aforementioned shorthanded defense was highlighted by Zac McGraw, making only his third-ever MLS start. Tasked with handling the dangerous duo of Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou, McGraw and the rest of defense stepped up admirably.

McGraw was active and locked in last week, and it bore out in some of his stats. According to FBref, McGraw recorded nine tackles + interceptions and eight clearances on Saturday night both of which were the highest totals out of anyone on the field Saturday.

McGraw is also already showing that he has one of the most wonderful traits a defender can have: getting under opposing forwards’ skin.

He wasn’t perfect on the night, and it’s still a question as to whether he can put in these kinds of performances on a regular basis. But on a night where he was under the microscope, McGraw stood tall and stepped up. This shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise — his performance and development during the preseason essentially convinced the technical team to put their search for a young centerback on hold.

It was a big moment for the young defender and he validated the trust the team put in him on Saturday night. That bodes well for not just the next few weeks until Larrys Mabiala and Dario Zuparic are back, but also the rest of the season and potentially beyond.