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Tree Rings: Highs and lows

On tenacious defending, easy capitulation, and taking the highs with the lows.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Los Angeles FC Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Tree Rings! A weekly (or so) column looking at the big picture from the most recent Timbers match(es), along with some smaller takeaways.

The Portland Timbers won their first season-opener since 2017 (on a Monday), then spent the better part of an hour getting shelled by the defending champs before storming back but ultimately falling in defeat on the road.

Heck of an opening week to the 2023 season for the trees.

Let’s count ‘em out.

The Heartwood

As I shivered up in the Providence Park press box awaiting kickoff on Monday, a realization dawned on me: we hadn’t seen the Timbers play soccer at all since last October. With no preseason tournament this year and no livestream of the preseason games, all we were left with was clips of goals to satiate our hunger for Timbers soccer in the cold days of winter.

So having two vastly contrasting games straight out of the gate has admittedly been a little jarring.

The opener featured an electric start and an inspiring goal from one of Portland’s new stars-in-waiting. Juan Mosquera, after barely playing in 2022, is essentially a new signing for the Timbers this year, and you could see his quality in that opening goal.

Unafraid to bomb forward and join the attack (a staple of Savarese-era fullbacks), Mosquera showcased his tenacity and willingness to shoot in his first ever Timbers goal.

Portland then buttoned up and they essentially defended for the rest of their opener, and with some discipline (and a dash of magic from David Bingham) Portland kept the clean sheet, tallied three points, and opened the season on a high note.

And then came... game number two. If last Monday was a high, last Saturday was certainly a low (mostly).

Against the defending champions the Timbers were caught on their heels and struggled to contain the pressure and pace of LAFC. Portland’s old achilles heel of set piece defending reared its head, and the Timbers conceded on two set piece situations. Couple that with an all-too-easy capitulation early in the second half and you had the makings for a pretty miserable afternoon for the Timbers.

It was discouraging to see the team that had defended so tenaciously in their first game capitulate so easily in their second. It was a harsh reminder that whatever good vibes the Timbers can generate can just easily be dashed when their blemishes start to show.

But after those blemishes showed in all their nasty glory, Portland generated some hope through a renewed fight in the final half hour. Greater energy and some tactical wrinkles led to the Timbers finding more space, Evander scoring his first-ever MLS goal (a very well-taken goal that had the shine taken off of it a bit with the situation), and Portland putting us on the edge of our seats believing that they could maybe salvage something out of what was a 3-0 deficit.

But we all saw the final scoreline: Portland fell short, and Saturday moved right back into the “disappointment” column.

It’s frustrating see a team hit such a positive high and just five days later hit a disappointing low. We all desperately want the Timbers to be a consistent team, putting in steady performances week in and week out.

But the reality is that that’s just not the Timbers as they currently stand. That’s also not early season MLS either, where scant few teams are consistent and clubs that missed the playoffs (or are brand-spanking-new) are currently undefeated. We’ve barely started this year’s 34-game gauntlet, and Portland has showed that they can weather inconsistent starts in the past.

The trick for us fans at this early stage in the season, is to buckle up, hang on, and try to take the highs with the lows as they come.

Counting out the rings

1. Portland’s defense has been busy through 180 minutes. According to MLS Soccer, in the opener the Timbers totaled 29 clearances, recorded 13 successful tackles, and blocked five shots. On Saturday, according to the mothership the Timbers recorded ten clearances, 15 successful tackles and seven blocked shots. Until Portland’s offense proves it can carry play and dictate game states (it has a ways to go to do that), my hunch is that those defensive numbers for games in the near future will be similar.

2. One defender who contributed quite a bit to those numbers was Zac McGraw. Big Zac, stepping into the starting role to replace Bill Tuiloma, will have the spotlight on him a lot this season. And so, it is worth recognizing the big role that he played in helping Portland keep a clean sheet on Monday... well as point out that he came back down to Earth a bit against LAFC. According to FBref he lost the most amount of attempted tackles out of anyone on the backline, and got turned by a few LA attackers over the course of the ninety minutes. It’s just two games in, but I think we’ve already seem a glimpse of the heights McGraw can hit — along with the growth he still has to do.

3. The internet is loving themselves some Juan Mosquera. The Timbers new young right back has already tallied a goal and an assist this year, and has arguably been Portland’s most dangerous attacking player so far. That fact says a lot about the level that the right-back could hit this year... as well as the state of Portland’s offense (currently: not great!).

4. The internet also has a lot of... thoughts about the start of Portland’s new star man Evander. He got off the mark and scored his first goal in MLS, but through 180 minutes hasn’t looked like a $10 million season-defining singing yet. But in this blogger’s humble opinion he doesn’t have to right at this moment.

By his own omission the Brazilian is still adapting to MLS and learning the playing style of his teammates. It’s a tough balance to strike when trying to help a team get results and also figuring out how you fit alongside the team around you on the field. The MLS season is long, dark and full of terrors, and Evander’s success will be judged on 2023 as a whole, not just 180 minutes of soccer.

I would encourage anyone who is judging Evander’s quality, or his commitment to the team, one week into the season to take some deep breaths, go for a walk, meditate on a little patience, and enjoy this stat:

5. I am truly running out of reasons why Savarese should not start Nathan on Saturday. I’ll raise my hand and say that I thought Jaroslaw Niezgoda stood a chance to get a new lease on life and rediscover his goalscoring form with Evander and a revamped offense behind him. He’s had two starts to show it and... I haven’t seen it. At this point Nathan should get the starting nod purely just to show what he can do with more time, so then at least Gio can find out the state of his current forward stable — and also who can help his team get wins.

6. After seeing them live last week, I can now confidently share: the new kits look good. The colors look way better in person than in images, and the gold accents down the side are a nice touch. I’ll put them up there on the same level as the 2017 and 2018 primaries —they’re very solid. They don’t hit the all-time iconic heights of the 2015 green & gold alternates (please come back we miss you) but they’re a very worthy addition to the pantheon of Timbers jerseys.