The Portland Timbers are trending upward, taking two points from their last two after being battered in their opening matches of 2018. But they travel across the continent to Central Florida to take on an Orlando City team that is also on the upswing after a wild 4-3 victory over the New York Red Bulls.
There’s a new boss at the helm in the Rose City and, while the bulk of the roster has remained intact, the team that topped last year’s Western Conference has struggled to get results this time around.
For what to expect of this year’s Timbers, we’ve asked Will Conwell from Portland’s SB Nation blog Stumptown Footy to give us some insight. I also answered some questions about our side and you can find them over at their place.
How has life been after Caleb Porter and how has Giovanni Savarese left his mark on this team?
Will Conwell: Saravese has certainly had an impact on the Timbers through four games this season, changing up the side’s tactical approach after five years of playing under Porter. In those four games there have been definite struggles as the team looks to adjust to their new look, but as the team has adapted to Saravese and Saravese has adapted to the team, the results have gone from disappointing to encouraging over the course of the Timbers’ season-opening road trip.
Under Porter, the Timbers developed an identity as a team that was capable of holding the ball and would wear down teams with their possession, as well as being a side capable of picking their moments and striking out on the break after dropping deep and welcoming their opposition forward.
In many ways, Saravese’s preferred approach to the game is the opposite of this. Given the right personnel, Saravese would love to be a team that actively presses high up the pitch, turning over the opposing team deep in their own end and creating the sort of high value chances that come when the defense is out of its shape. Unfortunately, while the Timbers’ attacking trio of Fanendo Adi, Diego Valeri, and Sebastian Blanco are all capable of being quite active on the defensive front, none seem particularly inclined toward the sort of high energy performance it takes to press all game.
That is not to say that the Timbers have abandoned the high press. In last weekend’s 2-2 road draw against the Chicago Fire, the Timbers were able to put the home side on the back foot for much of the match, getting the opening goal early in the match after turning over the Fire and taking advantage on the break. Saravese is still determining how best to make use of his players, but the seeds that he has planted with the side are showing definite signs of growth.
Portland’s defense struggled through March, allowing nine goals in four matches. Liam Ridgewell’s exclusion from the side has been a major talking point; are the two things related?
WC: Ridgewell was on the field for six of the Timbers’ nine goals allowed so far this season and as the team captain, his lack of effort in the side’s 4-0 week two loss to the New York Red Bulls was particularly galling.
In the first two matches that the Timbers — and Ridgewell — played, the side were disorganized and disheartened. The back line was out of sync, the midfield was disconnected, and the forwards were stranded on an island by themselves. Not all of that can be pinned on Ridgewell, but as a veteran and the team captain, it is on him to rally the side through words or deeds and it appeared that he went for neither.
What’s more, Ridgewell’s game has long been built around his ability to take a timely step up and break up a play with a headed ball away, an interception, or a timely foul. Without a dedicated defensive midfielder in front of him, dropping back onto the back line as David Guzman or Diego Chara did so often in 2017, Ridgewell has struggled to keep from opening up holes on the back line through his play. In the right situation and the right formation, Ridgewell’s instincts could still serve him well, but with the changes that Saravese has looked to implement this year he has often been the odd man out.
Recent word from the Timbers camp is that Ridgewell has taken the benching like a professional and is training well. Ridgewell is training so well, according to word from this week’s training sessions, he is in consideration for a return to the 18 this weekend. This is all, of course, exactly what the Timbers should be saying and after two weeks in exile, it seems as likely as not that the Timbers will continue to turn to Larrys Mabiala and Bill Tuiloma, the self-proclaimed “French Connection,” to be their starting center backs.
How has the team dealt with Darlington Nagbe’s high-priced departure over the off-season?
WC: The loss of Nagbe to Atlanta United, the Timbers’ first draft pick and a staple of the side since they joined Major League Soccer in 2011, has been difficult for the Timbers to deal with as they adjust to life without him.
Nagbe brings a number of things to the pitch, but first and foremost is an absolute inability to lose the ball. A pass anywhere near Nagbe at any speed is as good as received. Getting the ball on Nagbe’s foot means that he will get off a pass to another player on his team just about every time. Losing that remarkable knack for possession makes things difficult for the Timbers. Without Nagbe, the Timbers have lost one of their most effective pressure release valves. They no longer have a player that they can just pass the ball near and expect good things to happen.
At the same time, the loss of Nagbe has been freeing for the Timbers.
Nagbe’s unwillingness or inability to get involved in the attack in a regularly effective manner has long been a source of frustration for anyone who watches him play. Without Nabge on the pitch, the Timbers have looked to Sebastian Blanco to provide many of the same services in transition that Nagbe once did and they have profited from it. While Blanco is far from the possession machine that Nagbe was for the Timbers, his creativity, flair, and attacking mindset have already paid dividends this year with three goals and an assist through four games.
In Nagbe’s absence and with teams unable to ignore the dual attacking threats of Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi, Blanco should continue to flourish this year.
What injuries/suspensions will keep players out this weekend and what is your projected lineup and predicted final score?
WC: (4-3-2-1) Jake Gleeson; Vytautas Andriuškevičius, Bill Tuiloma, Larrys Mabiala, Zarek Valentin; Christhian Paredes, Diego Chara, Andres Flores; Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri; Fanendo Adi
2-1 Orlando, with a Will Johnson goal and a Dom Dwyer red card.
Thanks again to Will for taking the time to provide some information on this weekend’s visitors.