After a much needed break (both for the fatigued players and frustrated fans), the Portland Timbers are set to take the field once again, as they head to Carson, California to face the LA Galaxy this Saturday (2pm PDT, ESPN).
A disappointing start to the season for Portland gave way to a two-week break for the players and staff to analyze what went wrong and figure out how to fix it.
Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese believes that the break was helpful. Particularly, it was beneficial for his beleaguered team to get a chance to step away and reset. “I felt that it was good for our players to get this break, detach a little bit and be able to come back fresh,” Savarese shared with the media in his pregame press conference. “The energy and the mentality from the players coming back has been very positive. And now we are eager to start playing games.”
The Timbers should be eager to improve their position in the table now that they are back. The Timbers sit in 12th place in the Western Conference, third from the bottom with just 15 points from 15 games. They lost three games in a row going into the international break, all in rather ignominious fashion.
It has been the worst start to a season for Portland in the MLS era— and Savarese is well aware of it.
“The first thing is the understanding that the first part of the season was difficult, and that we should have done better, regardless [of] whatever the reasons,” Savarese shared when asked about the mentality of the returning group. “There’s the recognition from our part that [we] should have been better.
In how the team is going to improve, Savarese re-emphasizes that the time off was good for the group, and that players having the chance to step away for a few weeks helped them come back focused and prepared.
Gio believes that in addition to that re-focused mentality, a big factor that will help the team towards better results is players returning from injury. Claudio Bravo had been dealing with an injury for the past month and a half, Eryk Williamson suffered an injury against the Philadelphia Union in late May, and Jaroslaw Niezgoda had been sidelined since picking up a groin injury against LAFC in the U.S. Open Cup in May as well.
All of those above names are now off of the injury report, and those three players will all be ready to go against the Galaxy.
Timbers availability report for Saturday vs. LA Galaxy. After an injury-riddled first half of the season, everyone is healthy except for Diego Gutierrez, who had season-ending foot surgery.— Ryan Clarke (@RyanTClarke) June 17, 2022
Felipe Mora, Jaroslaw Niezgoda, Claudio Bravo and Eryk Williamson all available. #RCTID pic.twitter.com/239QEiIlYn
Crucially, another player who will be available for the first time all year is Felipe Mora. The Chilean forward, last seen causing Providence Park to literally erupt, had been unavailable due to offseason surgery. Now, he looks set to take the field for the first time in 2022.
His return could not come at a better time. One of the chief causes of Portland’s poor form this year has been their ineffective offense. Outside of a seven goal explosion against Sporting Kansas City (which is looking more and more like an outlier), Portland has scored just 14 goals in MLS this year. That mark would tied for the second fewest goals scored in the entire league. Portland’s top scorer from last season stepping onto the field may be a huge moment in Portland getting their attack firing again.
But Savarese is quick to refrain from heaping the expectations of the season on Mora’s shoulders. As he is just returning from injury, the team doesn’t want to rush him back with too much game time too soon. “We have to manage little by little the minutes, because we have to be very cautious in the way we move forward with him,” Savarese shared. But even if he doesn’t log much time, Mora returning is a big win for the team, according to Savarese. “The fact that he’s already available for a few minutes, that’s already a positive for us, and we’re excited about that.”
Whether it is through Mora, or the returned Niezgoda, or another source, attack should be on the top of Portland’s mind against LA. The Galaxy have conceded just 15 goals this season, but over half of those concessions (eight in total) came in LA’s final four games before the international break. A defense that the Galaxy have built their early results on may be cracking heading into this matchup, and so the Timbers should be looking to exploit it.
None of us should surprised if there are goals in this one: the last four meetings between the Timbers and the Galaxy have produced a whopping 15 goals scored. LA has a variety of weapons to continue that trend, including the always dangerous Chicharito and breakout danger man Dejan Joveljic.
So yes, Portland should be looking to capitalize and score. But they also must stay mindful about keeping the game in check. Specifically, they should be ready to bring back their patented road strategies of defending and counter-attacking.
Playing on the road has suited the Timbers in the past, as they have been comfortable with absorbing pressure and then looking to unleash direct and lethal counter-attacks. While that transition has lacked some energy and lethality so far in 2022, it still is one of Portland’s most potent weapons when they are able to execute it well. The efficacy of Portland’s counter-attacks may wind up being directly proportional to how well Portland stays in the game against the Galaxy.
Time will tell if the start of summer coincides with the start of yet another journey up the table for the Timbers. The first marker of which direction things will go comes this weekend against LA.
But as Savarese mentioned, the Timbers have used this time well to get refocused and healthy. A refreshed mentality combined with some revitalized and recovered players might just be the recipe Portland needs to get back on track.