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One Big Tree: The Greater Green

On an encouraging trend, a big question, and some Spring hope.

MLS: Austin FC 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 first win of 2022.

The last time OBT hit the internet after the home opener (I did say weeklyish), I posited that the early season Portland Timbers looked poised to be a team that contends in tough matchups and puts in gritty and determined performances.

Since then, the Timbers have scrapped a gutsy (and at the same time kind of disappointing) draw at LAFC, and chiseled out a 1-0 win against an improved Austin FC, while holding them without a shot on goal.

Early season games are very much a crapshoot, but it does look like the Timbers 270 minutes of MLS play in 2022 have been following an encouraging trend.

The theme of Portland’s March (and February) has been competent and resilient performances that have earned positive results. Last Saturday was an important next step in which the Timbers turned in yet another solid performance, and this time turned in what might wind up being a critical win over a Western Conference rival.

Getting that first win is important, and coupling it with the season’s first clean sheet is nice. What matters almost even more is that Portland have played decent soccer while having anywhere from 3-5 presumptive starters not at 100%. They’ve gotten points against good teams and in-conference rivals, and have defended home field. That is a fairly successful start to the season by most metrics.

Those same metrics suggest that the Timbers will of course need to improve as the season goes on — specifically in the attack. Saturday was cagey, and Austin came in with a very good game plan that stymied Portland until Bill Tuiloma’s head came in and changed things.

Until that point, the Timbers had only managed 0.83 expected goals on nine shots according to Major League Soccer. The number... isn’t the best. There were multiple times in the second half when the counter-attack didn’t quite click, and Portland weren’t able to unleash their attackers at pace with the same lethality that they have been able to in the past.

It is of course not time to mash anything close to the panic button yet, especially with Sebastian Blanco still working his way back to 100% and Felipe Mora yet to see the field in 2022.

But it is one of the bigger questions the Timbers will need to answer in the coming weeks and months if Portland’s positive trend is to continue. My bet is that as players start to come into form we will have an answer to that question soon.

Until then, Portland will have to lean on their ever-improving defense, which was in the spotlight Saturday night. Tuiloma in particular stood out as he anchored a backline that pitched its first regular season shutout since the last time the Timbers beat Austin at home. He also might have saved the game twice, by chipping in the game-winner and saving a goal with a key header off the line as Austin pushed for an equalizer.

Tuiloma’s increasing consistency, along with Zac McGraw’s development, is important. Tuiloma has impressed the team to the point that the New Zealand international was recently rewarded with a four year contract extension. He has also given Giovanni Savarese some breathing room as the manager re-integrates Larrys Mabiala and Dario Zuparic back into the fold.

The Timbers defense has been the bedrock by which they have started their 2022 season. It may not matter in the long run, but as the Timbers proved they were the greater green-wearing team on the field on Saturday, there’s some encouraging things playing out on the field in the Rose City.

Stats, Stems, and Leaves

  • Through just over 230 minutes on the field, Jaroslaw Niezgoda has generated just 0.6 expected goals. Three players on the roster have generated more. Through three games, the door is still very much open at the starting forward spot.
  • Yimmi Chara now has two goals and two assists (one of those being a secondary “MLS assist”) to start the 2022 season. Decent.
  • You miss 100% of the shots on goal you don’t take:

Moment in the Shade

When the final whistle blew on Saturday, here are some of the players (and their ages) that were on the field for Timbers: Santiago Moreno (21), Justin Rasmussen (23), David Ayala (19), Diego Gutierrez (23), and Zac McGraw (24). Those names include a starting winger, a starting fullback (making his professional debut!), a starting centerback, and two key subs.

And the thing is... none of them looked out of their depth. Rasmussen probably had the toughest go in adjusting to the game, but he eventually settled in nicely, especially in the attack. We all know what Moreno and McGraw bring. And in his minutes, Ayala looked composed and impactful. Gutierrez, in his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, also had a moment of pressure against the tired Austin backline, and brought high energy.

Those names are at best some key contributors for the next few years, and at worst some depth pieces that are young and hungry. This is relatively unfamiliar territory for the Timbers in March — having young talent poised to make an impact, and a level of (still somewhat unproven) depth.

That should make Timbers fans excited, or at least hopeful. Many of the hypotheticals lobbed at the Timbers in the preseason mostly centered around, “what is Portland’s ceiling and floor if their veterans aren’t themselves?” Those are still fair questions to ask, and will still be major hypotheticals in how Portland’s 2022 shakes out.

Well at the end of the night last Saturday, we might have just gotten some hints for where the team might look for answers. It is of course still early in the season, but the hope of youth shown on the brink of Spring might bear some fruit in the Summer and Fall, and beyond.