Timbers win with show of flexibility
The first time the 2018 Portland Timbers had a break in their schedule, it wasn't a restful week off. They had just lost 4-0 to the New York Red Bulls.
But, after Sunday's 3-0 win over previously unbeaten New York City FC, the Timbers should have a much more pleasant bye week. They've won two games in a row and are getting more comfortable under new coach Giovanni Savarese.
The Timbers' effort was commendable Sunday. When the opponent has the ball three-fourths of the game, as New York did, it limits the opportunities for the defending team to rest — physically and mentally. One misstep, one moment of daydreaming, can result in a goal against.
But New York City, which has proven attackers, failed to create many high-quality looks at goal. That is a tribute to the discipline and commitment the Timbers brought to the game.
And that might be the most important takeaway from the win. Because, for any new boss, success ultimately depends on the buy-in of his crew. A win like Sunday's should go a long way toward building the trust between coaches and players vital for long-term success. For that matter, it builds the belief of the man who hired that coach.
After Sunday's win, Timbers President Merritt Paulson admitted he was skeptical about Savarese's plan to defend with two blocks of four players and let NYCFC have the ball. But Paulson was just fine with the result.
In his introductory news conference in January, this is how Savarese described his philosophy:
"I am a coach that likes to be the dominant team on the field, to be the team that has the ball, that controls the flow of the game, that is offensive-minded."
Portland barely had the ball at all Sunday. But the rest of that philosophy could be found in the Timbers' performance.
By any measure but possession, the Timbers were dominant against the team that calls Yankee Stadium home. Portland earned more corner kicks, created the more dangerous chances and frustrated New York City FC into fouling 16 times.
A central talking point, understandably, was the return of Portland defender Liam Ridgewell. But the Timbers' back line would have been severely challenged if not for a disciplined approach from the four midfielders. Diego Chara was his usual roadblock, and Cristhian Paredes continues to show poise and soccer smarts beyond his 19 years.
New York City playmakers — particularly Alex Ring — had to work to find the ball and had few options when they did.
On the flip side, Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri were consistently dangerous going forward for Portland.
"We knew we had to move the ball fast and change the point of attack because (NYCFC) are very committed to one side," Savarese said, "and we were able to find, early enough, 'Seba' in some moments, and that was dangerous. But then we have to speak about the discipline of Blanco defensively because he worked very hard both ways."
Does this mean the 2018 Timbers will consistently bunker and fast-break?
Not likely, especially at home. Savarese is not married to one approach. And he is willing to use players based on the job he needs done.
Against New York City, one of those players was Andres Flores — selected instead of more attack-oriented Andy Polo and Dairon Asprilla and deployed on the right flank in front of Alvas Powell. The Salvadoran midfielder played for Savarese for four seasons with the New York Cosmos, and that familiarity came into play Sunday.
"I know Flores can do that role, in particular in this system, in this game," Savarese said. "I've seen him do that job before, so I knew he would associate very well with Powell, for Powell to have a little freedom."
Ridgewell's return might not have happened if not for an injury to Bill Tuiloma. After the game, Ridgewell said his commitment to the Timbers has not wavered despite "disagreements" with Savarese.
"I came here to win things," Ridgewell said. "We've done that, winning MLS Cup. We've done that last year, winning the West (in the regular season). I didn't come here to have a jolly up and finish my career."
Ridgewell declined to talk specifics but said disagreement and discussions with managers have been part of his soccer career.
"I'm outspoken. Every manager is (too)," Ridgewell said. "You've just got to keep your head and keep on playing the way you can play, and I was pleased to be out there to do that (against NYCFC)."
Savarese praised Ridgewell's performance.
"Liam had a fantastic match," the coach said. "I was very pleased with his performance today as part of the entire group."
The other lineup change — and another position battle to watch — was in goal. Jeff Attinella, who missed five weeks with a quad injury suffered early in preseason, got his first start of the season, the first time this season the Timbers goalkeeper was not Jake Gleeson.
One appearance with Timbers 2 and a scrimmage against the University of Portland helped Attinella prepare for his first MLS action of the season, and he looked comfortable — though he was never really tested. His only save was a 40th-minute stop on a low shot by David Villa from just inside the penalty area. But Attinella's command of the penalty area and ability to distribute the ball helped Portland limit breakdowns.
"Getting a good win like this, especially going into an off weekend, is always good for confidence," Attinella said. "But, you know, a lot of work to be done still. We're not going to celebrate this one too hard."
Next for the Timbers is a chance for a road win May 5 at San Jose, where a victory would further solidify the impression that Savarese and the Timbers are on a positive path.