In most seasons, the Seattle Sounders versus the Portland Timbers is top billing. I don’t necessarily blame you for being a bit tired of this matchup, considering this will be the fourth time it’s happened this season. I suppose the irony of this is that Seattle and Portland are currently level on points, with the Sounders holding the tiebreaker for the top spot in the Western Conference. I talked with Kyle Garcia of Stumptown Footy about his outlook on the Timbers.
Sounder at Heart: The Timbers had been flying recently. They had won five straight, including a gutsy win over the Sounders. But they’ve dropped points in their last two matches. What happened there?
Stumptown Footy: It’s mostly been due to momentary defensive lapses where they allow one or two goals at the worst possible times. Against LAFC, Larrys Mabiala lost his mark for a split second and that was all Christian Torres needed to net the goal in extra time. Last Wednesday, RSL put pressure on Portland the entire match, constantly finding the space behind the back line, and they got two goals in a span of about 15 minutes because of it. During the winning streak Portland was rock-solid defensively, earning three clean sheets during that span. They did allow three goals to LA Galaxy, but that was nullified by the six goals Portland scored on their end. The defense can be solid, but all year they’ve shown a tendency to have these lapses at bad times, and as good as Portland is offensively they can’t always just score six goals and make up the difference. Portland has to sharpen up on defense so they don’t get exposed in those moments.
SAH: In the past, the Timbers had relied heavily on Diego Valeri for their attack. It seems like this year the team has finally figured out a way forward without relying so heavily on the aging star. What’s Giovanni Savarese done to get the attack humming along this season?
STF: It’s been nice seeing Gio tweak the offense to make it more nuanced than “Let’s cross it all the freaking time.” It also helps that they have a bevy of attacking options to work with. I feel comfortable saying the Timbers have at least five guys who are a threat to score every time they have the ball, a nice luxury in this league. Really what Savarese has done is just let these guys go out and run. Yimmi Chara has blazing speed as a winger and Jaroslaw Niezgoda provides some of the same as a striker. Jeremy Ebobisse has also stepped up a ton this year, even as he’s played out of position on the wing. Felipe Mora has even shown how he can contribute to the club beyond just goals. The offense isn’t just telling El Maestro to do something; it’s about letting guys get out in space and just run. Savarese has just empowered his players to do more than just let Valeri drop it in their lap.
SAH: I’ve been asking every blogger this, so apologies to my readers for the repeat question, but I think it’s a good one. What constitutes a “good” season for the Timbers? A win on Thursday night would put Portland top of the Western Conference and in the driver’s seat to finish there ahead of the playoffs. Are you happy with a decent regular season plus the COVID Cup win, or do Portland fans have their sights on more?
STF: That’s a great question. It’s hard to gauge how much this season really means to MLS fans as a whole, but especially if you’re a Timbers fan. It feels like a big deal to win the MLS is Back Tournament and it’s great that we’re battling for the top spot in the conference, but it all begs the question of what qualifies as successful once we hit the playoffs. Personally for me, the expectation for Portland should be to make a deep playoff run at the very least. Winning the COVID Cup shows that they’re a high quality club, and they’ve been dominant at different points throughout the season. Last year they lost to RSL in the first round. Another first-round exit like that would be disappointing, especially after they showed they’re capable of winning hardware.
My answer can be read here.