Why Portland's "MLS is Back" Title Is So Important
The Portland Timbers’ victory in the MLS is Back Tournament final capped off a stretch in which very few could have predicted going into the Orlando bubble. Over the past two seasons, Portland has been anything but consistent, but they have shown an ability to make a run despite being an underdog.
The draw for Group F provided some stiff competition for the Timbers, as they had to face the tournament favorite Los Angeles FC, a potent Los Angeles Galaxy team, and a Houston squad that posed some offensive threats. Going into the bubble many thought that in order to avoid an early exit, the Timbers were going to have to execute right off the first kick. They certainly did that, defeating the Galaxy and Dynamo 2-1 to clinch a spot in the Knockout Round. After finishing group play with a draw against LAFC, Giovanni Savarese’s squad looked like one of the most composed teams in the field.
It took a penalty shootout to get past the surprise FC Cincinnati in the Round of 16, but Portland really settled in after that. After giving up a goal to Jesús Medina in the 27th minute, they rattled off three-straight goals against NYCFC, including strikes from offensive mainstays Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco. The toughest on-paper test came against a Philadelphia Union team that was looking to build off a strong 2019 campaign. Blanco’s goal in the 70th minute that put his team up two ended up being the difference-maker, as they conceded a late goal to the Union’s Andrew Wooten.
Going into the tournament final against Orlando City SC, Savarese had to tighten up the team’s defense late in games. While having the lead, they conceded a goal during the final ten minutes in four of their six matches, making all four either a one-score game or a tie. While it could be spun that they stayed composed in those slim margins, it also was drama that they did not have to face.
Orlando was a team that not many expected to be in the final, like Portland. New coach Oscar Pareja had his team playing hard and well, trying to pick up the pieces after it finished 11th in the Eastern Conference in 2019. Unfortunately for them, the Timbers were the hotter team, and had a lot of experience in 2020 playing close matches. With the score tied at one in the second half, Dario Zuparic scored off of a redirect from a corner kick to put his team up 2-1, a lead they would not relinquish.
The 2020 MLS is Back Tournament run signals a major high in what has become a roller-coaster era for Portland. The club, since their MLS Cup victory in 2015, has experienced some of the most dramatic swings in terms of record, production, schedule, and standing. Yet, despite all of this year-to-year consistency, they have always found ways to win.
The end to the 2019 Major League Soccer season was starkly different from 2018 for the Portland Timbers. In 2018, the club became the first-ever fifth seed to reach the MLS Cup final in Savarese’s first season as head coach. Their improbable run began with a 2-1 road victory over FC Dallas, despite losing defender Larrys Mabiala to a red card in the 57th minute. In a conference semifinal clash with longtime rival Seattle, Portland advanced on penalty kicks at CenturyLink Field after a tied goal aggregate through two matches. The upsets continued for the Timbers, as they topped the number one seeded Sporting Kansas City 3-2 on aggregate to reach their second-ever MLS Cup appearance.
In the span of 30 days, Portland defeated three of the top four teams in the Western Conference en route to the league’s biggest stage. According to FiveThirtyEight, Portland had just a seven percent chance to reach the MLS Cup Final, while its first three opponents had an average chance of 24.3%, which would have placed second among the field of teams. The Timbers’ Soccer Power Index (SPI) rating graded out at 42.1, which was eighth out of the field of 12 teams.
They faced a daunting task in the MLS Cup Final against a record-breaking Atlanta United squad in their home stadium, which houses over 70,000 fans. Atlanta was the overwhelming favorite to win, and after exceeding expectations for four weeks, Portland failed to meet them during the final, being shutout 2-0 to the league’s top team from the season.
In a recent interview, Savarese drew comparisons between their 2018 run to Atlanta and what his team just accomplished in Orlando. “We were very content around the players, the staff, the togetherness was incredible,” he said. “And it felt very much like the [MLS Cup] run of 2018 because the guys were very fresh mentally. If there was another match, I can tell you that the guys would be up to [it], because the guys wanted to make sure that we went back with something important.”
Due to renovations at Providence Park, the Timbers spent the first three months of the 2019 season on the road. It certainly isn’t an ideal situation for any team to begin a season, let alone a team that had the shortest offseason rest out of anyone in the league with a second-year head coach in Savarese. FiveThirtyEight’s preseason metrics had them seventh in SPI with a 74% chance to make the playoffs, despite the 12-match road stretch to begin the season.
Portland went 4-6-2 during that stretch, keeping themselves afloat as they began to have home matches again. The wins started to come during the summer months, but the Timbers failed to capitalize fully towards the end of the season. Providence Park hosted 11 of the final 12 games in the regular season for the club, which was a dream scenario for a team who had been on the road so much since the beginning of the 2018 playoffs. During that 12-game stretch, Portland went a lackluster 5-4-3, clinching the last available playoff berth in the Western Conference. The team’s attack began to fall off as well, as they were shutout four times (25% of that stretch of games). If you factor in the games in which the Timbers scored one goal, it makes up over half of the 11 games they had at home in the final two months. The offensive woes continued into the first round of the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, as Portland fell 2-1 at Real Salt Lake, their earliest playoff exit since 2016 when they failed to qualify.
The following offseason brought in a lot of questions. Valeri had an expiring contract after being one of the most consistent offensive pieces for the club for years. They also terminated the contract of Brian Fernandez, the Designated Player that scored 11 goals in 19 regular-season matches during the 2019 season. Other teams in the Western Conference were getting stronger as well, and Portland had to bolster its attack in order to stay in the top half of the conference.
The solution was the addition of two new strikers, Felipe Mora and Jaroslaw Niezgoda, along with winger Yimmi Chara to supplement Valeri and Blanco. Portland’s General Manager Gavin Wilkinson praised the versatility that Mora and Niezgoda brought to the team.
Bringing in two proven goal scorers also gave Savarese the ability to experiment with a two-forward formation. “Definitely I think that’s a possibility,” he said when asked about the idea. “It’s going to be a difficult decision for me because they are three competitive players [Mora, Niezgoda, and Jeremy Ebobisse] and at the end of the day I think they can also have some moments to player together… we have flexibility tactically and that’s a good thing we can have on our team.”
While the sample size is small, the Portland attack has been more efficient compared to its numbers from last season. 42% of the shots taken are on goal, compared to 32% from the 2019 campaign. They also have scored at least one goal in every match they have played, which matches their longest streak of consecutive matches with a goal in 2019 (five games). In terms of the three strikers Savarese mentioned, they combined for five goals of the 14 goals they had during their run in Orlando.
Only the Group Stage matches count towards the regular season standings, and even without the four wins from the Knockout Stage, Portland currently sits third in the Western Conference with 10 points (3-1-1). The 2020 season is shaping up to be a pivotal moment for the Timbers, with the influx of new talent and the growth of their foes across their conference. If their play over the past month is indicative of how their campaign will be, the club will be threat in the latter stages of both the regular season and playoffs.
(Photo of Dario Zuparic: Douglas DeFelice - USA Today Sports)