It would not be inaccurate to describe Gio Saverse’s first season in Portland as a roller coaster. After going winless in their first 5 games, Portland went on a 15 game unbeaten streak in which they got good results but weren’t actually playing great soccer. Playing in a 4-3-2-1, the product was effective but not pretty. Once the streak was broken things went bad in a big way starting a four match skid while getting outscored 10-2 in the process. Since then they’ve seem to have figured some things out, going 5-2-2 down the stretch before resting their starters on the final day.
Formation consistency is not exactly something the Timbers were known for this season. Gio Savarese tried some things out early, got off to a rough start, then settled on the 4-3-2-1 for awhile and went on that 15 match unbeaten streak. Once that streak ended, Gio experimented some more and it was evident as the Timbers struggled while Gio tried to figure out how to both protect a fairly weak and inconsistent backline, while still allowing the Timbers attack to be dangerous.
Despite only playing the 4-2-3-1 in only 6 games this season, (the first 3, and the last 3) Portland has now played it in each of their last three matches, and seem to have settled on this formation with Diego Chara and David Guzman partnering in the center midfield shielding the backline. This has brought them some of their best moments of the last couple seasons.
Speaking of the Chara-Guzman partnership, it’s been a bit of a tough season for Guzman, who struggled early with injuries, then went off to play in the World Cup. After the World Cup, it took a while for Guzman to really break into Gio’s lineup consistently. Now that he has though, he and Chara have reformed their successful partnership and I think it’s part of what has stabilized the Timbers a bit and was essential to their back to back big wins over RSL in what were essentially playoff games.
Passes per game: 454.2 (18th in MLS)
Passes against per game: 517.6 (7th most in MLS)
xGoals For: 51.3 (8th in MLS)
xGoals Against: 47.2 (11th in MLS)
xGoalDifference: 4.4 (9th in MLS)
Top expected goals for: Diego Valeri 11.8 xG (13th in MLS)
Top expected goals assisted: Diego Valeri 10.4 xA (1st in MLS)
Top expected buildup: Sebastian Blanco 21.9 (19th in MLS)
Best xPasser: Zarek Valentin 63.2 (16th in MLS)
Their expected goals numbers accurately place the Timbers right on the edge of the top third of the league, very good, but clearly not amongst the elite.
First Round Matchup
The Timbers open the playoffs on the road against FC Dallas, who they’ve tied in both matchups this season. The bad news for Portland is that this game comes on the road, where the Timbers have not been very good this year. Portland had the best record in the West at home this year, but won just 4 times on the road this year, least of any playoff team in the West. The good news is that Dallas comes into the playoffs having lost 3 straight including a Decision Day loss to Colorado on a day that if things had gone their way, a win could’ve meant first in the West.
Dallas has been much less dynamic in attack since Mauro Diaz’ departure earlier this season. That’s not to say they don’t have dynamic players, just that they haven’t looked dynamic as a team consistently. That might help the Timbers. The Timbers worst losses this year have come against teams with fast dynamic combinations in attack, whereas Dallas seems lately to rely more on moments of brilliance from individuals. If Dallas can’t combine in attack to pull the Timbers defenders out of position, that will lessen the chances of a big mistake leading to a goal. That said, Dominique Badji’s speed could cause Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala problems.
Probably the best news for the Timbers is that they rested almost everyone this weekend, so they’ll be fresh going into the game. Dallas had more to play for on the final day so their starting eleven will be coming off a full 90 minutes, which could be an important edge for the Timbers.
Why Portland Won’t Make the MLS Cup Final
Starting with the obvious fact that they finished with the 8th highest point total in MLS, there are plenty of reasons to think the Timbers will not make the MLS Cup Final. The Timbers had an up and down year, but at no point did they really go on any dominant run. Even during their 15 game unbeaten streak, watching them play you wouldn’t have gotten the sense that they were truly unbeatable. Their defense isn’t great even when everyone is healthy (assuming “everyone” means Villafana, Ridgewell, Mabiala, Valentin, Attinella), and keeping everyone healthy has been a struggle. The other important question mark is who is going to show up when it matters most in attack. Yes, Jeremy Ebobisse looks like he might be a really good player, but we’re talking about fewer than 500 minutes played this season. Sebastian Blanco was very very good this season, but still isn’t consistent enough in his ability to take over a game. Even Diego Valeri, who is the most likely Timber to take over when needed, went missing a few too many times this season. All that adds up to say the Timbers are right about where they should be - the 8th best team in MLS and likely to lose on the road in the first round of the playoffs.
Why Portland Will Make The MLS Cup Final
Did you watch the Timbers in their home-and-home against Real Salt Lake with essentially a playoff berth on the line? The Timbers finally looked settled in their 4-2-3-1, the defense stood strong when it needed to, and the attack, led by Valeri, Blanco, and Ebobisse, was at its best. If that team can show up again, there’s no reason they can’t make the final. The 2015 Timbers (and the 2016 and 2017 Sounders) proved you don’t have to be the best team all year long, you just need to be the best in November and December. It could happen. The other glimmer of hope is that the Timbers managed to grind out some tough results this year. Unlike previous years, they managed to win some games even when not playing well, and if you can do that, you’ve always got a chance in the playoffs.