If March was about struggle for the Portland Timbers, April was about recovery. Like all recoveries, it started with hitting rock bottom in the Bay Area — losing 3-0 and decisively taking the title of Worst Team in the League. From there, however, the Timbers began an upward trend. In Dallas the next week, the team showed a much stronger performance, despite failing to take a point. Then, in Columbus, Gio Savarese once again brought in a new formation, and the team responded with their first win. They repeated the performance on Saturday, bringing home another three points from Toronto.
Now, after two road wins against strong Eastern Conference teams, it’s inarguable that the Timbers are, at least for the moment, playing good soccer. What’s more, the team is now averaging .875 points per game, nearing the 1PPG mark agreed upon as a road-trip-target by fans and media alike. With things thoroughly looking up, questions from those who follow the team can turn from “Why are they so bad?” to “What changed?” and “Why did it take so long?”.
As to what’s changed, there are some obvious answers. For one, the players who were performing the worst during the losing streak haven’t seen the field since San Jose, and those that have been playing in their stead have looked crisper and more determined. Cristhian Paredes has been excellent, Andres Flores is a workhorse, and Bill Tuiloma and Zarek Valentin have seemingly solved the left-side defensive issues that plagued the Timbers previously this year. Furthermore, Diego Valeri is looking more like his usual self, and his combination play with Sebastian Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse has been key in creating chances for the Timbers in their last couple of games.
Gio Savarese’s latest formation shift has helped too. The flat 4-4-2 he’s run out in both of the team’s victories has allowed for plenty of build-up play through the middle, while also providing multiple targets in the penalty area for the dual crossing threats of Blanco and Jorge Moreira.
What might be less obvious is that there seems to have been a positive shift in the mentality of the team. While the performances on the field were bad over first several weeks of the season, there were no outward signs of internal turmoil — besides perhaps Lucas Melano’s now-infamous popcorn pic, which at the time seemed to be an isolated incident.
However, we got another hint about the past mental state of the team from Ebobisse’s post-game presser in Toronto. While talking about the Timbers’ response to going down early, he said, “We could have put our heads down, maybe at the beginning of the year we might have started a little infighting, but you know, I think with last week and this week we’ve seen a little more tenacity and togetherness within the group.” That there had been infighting within the group is maybe not the most surprising revelation about a team that just lost five straight, but it certainly provides additional context to those struggles.
During the PTFC’s losing streak, the team looked sluggish, disorganized, and generally like they weren’t too excited to be on a soccer field. By contrast, the team on Saturday looked confident, composed and, as Ebobisse said, tenacious. It’s probably too soon to say whether or not the team has totally righted the ship, especially when it comes to their mentality — and the presumably imminent arrival of Brian Fernandez may throw another wrench in the team’s collective attitude.
That said, for the first time since December, Timbers fans can relax and enjoy the way their team is playing. As Gio Savarese said following his latest win, “It feels good for sure especially because this is our team. This is the Portland Timbers that we know.”