Don't worry about Portland: The Timbers have the tools, and the return home, to get them back on track
One would think that after two straight road wins, Portland Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson would be in an upbeat mood. After all, the Timbers now look poised to survive their 12-game road slog at the start of the 2019 season. The defense, which was leaking goals at an alarming rate, has tightened up. Diego Valeri is closer to looking like his old self and now leads MLS in assists. Youngsters Jeremy Ebobisse and Cristhian Paredes have raised their level. And yet, when asked if he was feeling better about his team's prospects, Wilkinson would only say, "A little."
The team's early struggles, when it went winless in its first six games, still rankle.
"It's still well off [what we want]. But two wins gives the team a little more respect," Wilkinson said via telephone. "I think if we stay grounded, we'd admit that there's still a lot of things to work on and a lot of points we need to catch up on as such. We're still under one point per game [in the standings], which is not good. There are those elements we do need to fix and fix quickly."
Compare that to head coach Gio Savarese, a glass half-full manager if there ever was one. Savarese was understandably enthused about the team's last two results, a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Toronto FC on April 27 and a 3-1 win over Columbus on April 20.
"This period was different, the desire was different," said Savarese about the past few games. "It's never been a problem with tactics. It's just that we had to find our way back in finding the right spirit.
"In Toronto we not only got a good win, but I thought the team played very well in regards to not only defensively but offensively, with possession, keeping the ball, very calm, executing the plan that we asked them to do. So all around, it was a very positive 10 days for us."
There is accuracy in both of their perspectives, of course. Portland has been a bit all over the place in 2019, and while its recent results have been positive, immense challenges remain.
Granted, any discussion of Portland's season to date has to start with its schedule. Its 12-game road stretch due to renovations at Providence Park is the longest to start the season in league history, and such displacement can impact a team in ways both obvious and subtle. When a team struggles on the road to get results, those difficulties can be arrested by a home game or two, the better to get back in rhythm and regain confidence.
Portland hasn't had that luxury.
Then there's the increase in fatigue that comes from constantly playing on the road. The extended run of away games also cuts into practice time, reducing the opportunities needed to correct on-field problems. It factored into the decision to keep the team in Columbus after the win over the Crew, instead of flying back to Portland before heading to Toronto.
But this was also a team just months removed from an appearance in MLS Cup final and for that reason, the alarm bells during the first six weeks of the season haven't faded entirely. There were moments -- particularly in the 3-0 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes on April 6 -- when the Timbers looked old and slow on both sides of the ball. Players like Valeri, David Guzman and Jorge Villafaña looked well short of the form that had made them mainstays in Portland. While there has been talk of a championship hangover for Atlanta United, the Timbers looked like they were afflicted with a similar issue.
Wilkinson, for his part, admitted that his attempts to strengthen the side in the offseason didn't go like he hoped: "I have to, in my role, take some responsibility."
While he succeeded in landing right-back Jorge Moreira, the Paraguayan didn't arrive until the last few weeks of preseason, limiting his time to acclimate. Given the departure of defender Liam Ridgewell, and in particular his ability to play out of the back, Wilkinson also said he wanted to acquire a central defender but was boxed in to a degree. He wanted a player who had MLS experience but with the current CBA expiring after the end of this season, he also didn't want to get locked into a long-term contract. That limited the pool of candidates and Portland ended up acquiring Claude Dielna from the New England Revolution, who has played just 177 minutes so far.
As for the long-rumored striker search, reports have linked Necaxa's Brian Fernandez with the club, though there is only a week left in the current transfer window to get that deal done.
That inability to restock appeared to create a bit of complacency in the side early on but some of the Timbers' younger players have stepped up in recent weeks. Bill Tuiloma scored an absolute golazo to key Portland's comeback and has looked more settled alongside Larrys Mabiala in the center of defense.
Ebobisse has responded to the reports of a new forward signing in the best way possible, scoring in the past two games. Paredes has arguably been the most instrumental of all, forming a solid central partnership alongside the always dependable Diego Chara and providing some protection for the backline.
"The work that Paredes did to close down [Toronto midfielder] Alejandro Pozuelo constantly and not give them time or space to play was tremendous work," Savarese said. "In possession, he built up during the match and he covered a lot of ground. He was good with the ball or without the ball."
All of this has served to free up Valeri. Such was the Argentine's play early on that a previously unthinkable question began to formulate: Was Valeri still a 90-minute player? A heel injury slowed his progress at one point but in recent weeks, that question has been answered. "I think when the whole team is working hard, then all of a sudden a guy like Valeri steps up and starts becoming the one that we know. He's a game-changer," Savarese said. "Diego is a fantastic player and now that the whole team is engaged, it allows him as well to be able to be more impactful in the game.
"Not only him but Sebastian Blanco and the other guys. You see it for me, it was a matter of time for the guys to get everything together, but guys like Chara, Blanco, Valeri, they still contribute a lot to the game. When you see them at practice they're still motivated to play."
So is a return trip to MLS Cup final possible? That still seems very far away, especially in a Western Conference that looks to be highly competitive this season. But a couple of more wins in the four remaining games of this road swing will allow the Timbers to stay within sniffing distance of the playoff places. And if Wilkinson can bring in some reinforcements, a second-half revival along the lines of what D.C. United did last year is possible.
"We're trying to find a balance in making sure that we are not that low when tough times are here and not that high when good things are starting to happen," Savarese said. "We need to keep our honesty towards our work, and keep going to the same way."
If that happens, then Wilkinson's mood -- and that of all the Timbers fans -- will no doubt improve.