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One Big Tree: Working Out of It

On reading things online, mini-roller coasters, and smooth Jazz(y)

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

It has been an up and down start to the 2022 season for the Portland Timbers. On the field, encouraging early season games gave way to a patented Spring slide from Giovanni Savarese’s side. Going into last Saturday the Timbers were winless in their last three games and had lost two of their last three (both by multiple goals).

The ire toward the team’s play that has been handed out on social media has been distributed pretty widely. From needless red cards, inability to consistently score, or inconsistent attacking play, many players have gone under the microscope of the collective fanbase.

One of those players was Jaroslaw Niezgoda. Portland’s Designated Player center forward has had a lackluster start to 2022. Handed an opportunity to take firm hold of the starting striker job with Felipe More on the shelf, Niezgoda’s returns have been significantly less than stellar.

A main criticism that many (including *ahem* a particular blogger before the game last week) have lobbed his way has been his inability to work himself into good scoring positions and make the most of opportunities in front of the net.

So what does he go and do on Saturday? Work himself into a good scoring position, and decisively make the most of an opportunity in front of the net.

It was almost as if Jaro read all of the things said online about him, and said “Oh yeah? Well watch me turn a German defender into a revolving door and smash it into the roof.”

Jaro’s decision to go right at Florian Jungwirth there is the kind of directness that has been missing from his game thus far in 2022. The fact that he turned Jungwirth into a traffic cone in the process is in a way validation that those types of moves are what is needed for Niezgoda to be a more consistent threat up top for the Timbers.

His performance, along with the performance of many other players on the team on Saturday, was emblematic of the Timbers when they are at their best. They were composed with a plan, determined and direct when attacking, and finally showed flashes of that lethality in front of goal that Savarese had been wanting all season.

The goal above was emblematic: a quick attack on the break, Yimmi Chara and Sebastian Blanco finding good spots in the buildup, and finally some decisiveness and quality on passes to help them find their intended target. Yimmi’s goal was also a showcase of this — and included yet another Vancouver defender getting bodied.

But of course, because this is the Timbers and nothing can be straightforward, that composure didn’t last all game. The last twenty minutes or so of the game was a mini-roller coaster. Right about after scoring their second goal, Portland’s grip on the game started to loosen, and Vancouver took control. Despite the third goal, the field was squarely tilted in the favor of the Whitecaps applying significant pressure on the Timbers backline.

Questionable refereeing decisions notwithstanding (for the second the week in a row!), in the late stages the Timbers lost some of that focus and composure which had made them so successful earlier in the game. It has been perhaps the most worrying trend this year, and reared its head again Saturday. This season it’s been self-inflicted wounds — lack of focus that leads to red cards, lack of decisiveness in the attack, subsequent lack of concentration in defense leading to conceding goals- that have lead to some of the worst results for the Timbers this season.

Those were things the Timbers were able to mostly do away with on Saturday, and it lead to a relieving and encouraging win. But for as encouraging the first 70 minutes of the game was, the latter stages of the game were a wary warning that Portland is still working its way out of a slump. On the back of three points, they know they still have work to do.

Stats, Stems, and Leaves

  • Since last August, the Vancouver Whitecaps have only last two games at home. Both have been to the Portland Timbers. How does that song go again?
  • Yimmi Chara earned his third nod to the Team of the Week after notching a goal and a secondary assist. He also recorded his highest pass completion of the season on Saturday (85%) and leads the team in assists (primary + secondary)
  • The team leader in primary assists? That would be Sebastian Blanco, who has had two passes leading directly to a goal in just under 250 minutes this year (0.73 assists/90 minutes). Both have been assists on Jaroslaw Niezgoda goals.

Moment in the Shade

Sprinkle a little respect on Jazzy’s name:

Aljaz Ivacic (or “Jazzy”, as some on the team like to occasionally call him), came up big a number of times in Portland’s win. He made two big stops early in the second half to keep Portland’s noses in front, and then of course put the cherry on top by stonewalling Cristian Dajome’s late penalty. It also very well may have saved the game for the Timbers, as an even later (and perhaps even more dubiously awarded) penalty from Ryan Gauld made things interesting at the end.

It was an encouraging moment for a player that, similar to Niezgoda, has had a bit of a rough go of his first real opportunity to claim the starting goalkeeper role. Through some inconsistencies, he hasn’t fully earned the confidence of the fanbase quite yet. His consistent starts this season shows that he has earned the confidence of the coaching staff however — and he rewarded that confidence last weekend.

His saves last weekend, punctuated by saving the first PK he’s faced in MLS, are reminiscent of other impressive stops Ivacic has made this season. While the defensive results haven’t quite followed, the post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed advanced metric (the same one that underscored how good Steve Clark was last year) suggests that Ivacic has thus far shown an above-average ability at stopping shots.

The book is still out on if he is the long-term answer in goal, but for one week, Jazzy was smooth and integral in helping the Timbers out of a jam and ensured Portland escaped Canada with three points.