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Three Thoughts: Sad, but happy (but still sad)

On backup plans, Jazz hands, and Blanco’s ban.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers’ 1-1 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps last weekend was frustrating, but also encouraging, but still worrying— all at the same time.

Here’s three thoughts about it all:

Put it in the mixer

Despite Portland battling back to earn a draw and keep their unbeaten steak alive, Sunday didn’t feel all that great.

Perhaps it due to seeing a golden opportunity to jump above the playoff line and put one hand on the Cascadia Cup pass Portland by, or perhaps it due to witnessing another frustrating outing against Vancouver at home.

Or perhaps it was due to how the game played out. Vancouver committed numbers back while defending, putting a robust low block between the Timbers and the goal. Their aim was to block anything in the middle and force the Timbers wide.

It was apparent what their plan was when looking at the chart of where Vancouver made their clearances and ball recoveries Sunday night:

And the effectiveness of it was apparent when analyzing how Portland was forced to attack, as the Timbers pumped 25 crosses into the box on Sunday (according to MLS Soccer). It’s the highest number they’ve attempted all season— and only four were successful.

That exposes that Portland’s plan of attack on Sunday was decidedly not their preferred style. Giovanni Savarese likes to have his teams attack directly, and prioritizes link-up play around the edges of the box to spring attackers. Vancouver forced Portland into a less-preferred path, and the Timbers weren’t quite ready for it.

It was only when Portland threw caution out the window and committed bodies forward did they start to find success. Vancouver’s legs also started to tire, which gave Portland’s attackers just enough more room to make something happen— which Felipe Mora did when he drew the equalizing penalty kick.

It’s a testament to this team’s resilience and grit (both elements that have been largely absent this year, until recently) that they kept fighting to the end in a frustrating game. But it’s clear that when their creative midfielders aren’t firing (or are unavailable, as Eryk Williamson was on Sunday) the Timbers don’t yet have a strong backup plan on offense. It’s a situation that will almost certainly come up again before 2022 is done and dusted, and an area that needs to be addressed soon.

Throw up your Jazz hands

I can’t get over how ridiculous the start to the second half was.

Not only did Vancouver have the audacity to run a set play and very nearly score literally right from the second half kickoff, but the Timbers were also caught so completely unaware that they almost got sucker-punched, almost losing the game right then and there.

Thank goodness for Aljaz Ivacic.

Ivacic’s performance has kind of gone under the radar this season. That’s likely because there hasn’t really been a lot to talk about: he has been more than solid in the net, and— as showcased by the above— has helped Portland pick up points and wins with fantastic saves.

In fact, the numbers suggest that Ivacic has been among some of the best goalkeepers in MLS this season, helping to prevent over six cumulative goals for the Timbers this year. To dive even deeper into the numbers, the post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed statistic strongly suggests that Ivacic is showcasing an above-average shot-stopping ability. That’s the same advanced metric that suggested that Steve Clark was a top ‘keeper last year, and it’s telling us basically the same thing about Ivacic this year.

All of that was on display on Sunday, when Ivacic made seven saves on the night to help Portland salvage a draw. If one of the questions going into 2022 was Portland’s goalkeeper position, Jazzy has just about done enough to answer it.

The gray without Blanco

Sebastian Blanco picked up a rather unnecessary yellow card in the dying minutes of Sunday for arguing a non-call with the referee, and Blanco will be subsequently suspended for Portland’s next fixture against San Jose this weekend.

His absence creates a question mark for the Timbers– and perhaps not entirely in the way you might think.

Blanco has had, by his terms, an uneven 2022 so far. He has three goals and seven assists (six primary assists) to his name in almost 1,100 minutes played. He has matched his 2021 assist haul in about 100 minutes less this year, but his goal number has lagged. While there is still plenty of season to play– and we all know the level Blanco can reach when the season reaches the pivotal stages– Seba hasn’t quite felt like the world-destroying, field-altering force he was in 2020 and 2021.

Which brings us to Portland’s next game. Blanco has been relied upon as an attacking fulcrum for the Timbers when he’s on the field, and with him out Portland will have lineup questions against the San Jose Earthquakes in order to keep their offense on point.

They could deploy in a set that features three true central midfielders, lining up Eryk Williamson and Cristhian Paredes in the middle of the park next to Diego Chara. Or they could roll out i a back three, similar to the one Giovanni Savarese shifted to at the end of the game on Sunday which featured attacking wingbacks and two forwards.

Whatever the answer is, how the new tactical formation fares on the field will tell a lot about how Blanco-centric this team still needs to be. If the offense sputters, then Portland will still need Blanco to be Blanco in order to be successful. And if that’s the case, then the concern becomes what happens when Blanco is unavailable, or has a so-so game (like he had for stretches on Sunday).

But if the offense looks good, then there is a discussion to be had about what Portland’s tactical look should be for the stretch run. The best role for Blanco on this team for the remainder of this season would then be something the coaching staff needs to explore, and potentially make hard decisions around.

Either way, Saturday will be quite the bellwether game for the vibes around the final few months of the season.