Trouble in PTFC: How did we get here?

by Charlie Folkestad

The Portland Timbers suffered a 3-1 loss in Austin, TX Saturday night, conceding three goals before the 30-minute mark to a team with the worst goal-scoring record in MLS (0.85 goals/90 entering Saturday). This came off the back of a one-point week that included a 6-2 drubbing at the hands of their arch-rivals and a 1-1 draw that could have been an impressive win in Kansas City.

For many fans, the Seattle result put head coach Giovanni Savarese on the hot seat. The same suggestion has also been lobbed for General Manager/President of Soccer/Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson. So how did we get here? Why isn’t there a quick fix?

The answer is that there are multiple elements that have gone awry within this organization.

The Moves

It’s worth noting that there is tension between the front office and Savarese himself. Gio was visibly unhappy at the FO’s trade deadline decision to sell forward Jeremy Ebobisse to playoff competitors San Jose for $1.167 million.

The thinking was that new Young Money winger Santiago Moreno and the return of DP forward Jaroslaw Niezgoda would leave no spots for Ebobisse, who struggled to crack the full-strength XI despite being a fan favorite.

While Gio had a right to be angered about this, he should also shoulder partial blame. He constantly stuck Jebo out on the wing instead of playing him at his natural #9 position, claiming the American forward had the ability to play in both spots.

Wilkinson has also failed to deliver a new center back, something he’s been mentioning since before the start of last season. With the back four struggling, the most consistent piece this year has been right back Josecarlos Van Rankin, who’s on loan from Chivas Guadalajara.

Dario Župarić has locked down a starting center back spot, but even he has struggled. Bill Tuiloma and Larrys Mabiala are both inconsistent at best and still seem to be battling for the other spot. Homegrown Zac McGraw may develop into a starting-caliber MLS center back someday, but he’s not there right now. Those are the only four CBs on the roster.

Highly-touted left back signing Claudio Bravo has been steadily improving; but his trip to the Olympics, adjusting to the physicality of MLS, and the constant rotation of players has rendered him less effective than he could be.

Arguably Wilkinson’s best move was bringing in Brian Fernández in 2019, but that depends how one distributes the fault of how that saga ended. Fernández lit up a team destined for failure, but his own habits eventually led to the termination of his contract.

We never found out if the Timbers recollected that $10 million transfer fee from Necaxa.

The Performances

It’s safe to say there is no distinct tactical style for the Timbers under Savarese, who rode the defensive 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree” formation to an MLS Cup final in his first season. Sebastián Blanco’s pair of miracle goals may have helped some, too.

Nearly three years later, the Timbers are still reverting to a three-man defensive midfield in times of crisis. At times under Savarese they’ve been deadly on the counter, and at others they’ve been ruthless in possession. But neither strategy has stuck around long enough to make itself a consistent identity.

Since that magical run to the Cup in 2018, Portland have been bounced from the first round of the playoffs twice.

In 2019 the team would not have made the playoffs sans Fernández. By the time Portland faced Real Salt Lake in the first round, their ringer was out of the 18. They lost 2-1, conceding a late goal to Jefferson Savarino.

In 2020 the Timbers had reinforcements, including a new non-DP deal for Diego Valeri. Two new DPs—Niezgoda and Yimmi Chará—joined the squad, and Portland went onto win the MLS is Back Tournament amidst widespread pandemic chaos.

At times, the Timbers seemed unbeatable in 2020. Two six-goal performances in five straight wins gave reason for optimism.

But the defensive shortcomings were still there. Late concessions plagued the Timbers, and FC Dallas used one to bounce third-seeded Portland out of the first round.

None of the defensive issues from last year have been repaired. While Wilkinson can bide his time and wait for the right deal to emerge, the squad is obviously desperate for a new center back.

Portland are now under the playoff line. They’ve conceded a conference-worst 39 goals in 20 games and have a conference-worst -15 goal differential. They have one win and two draws from 10 away matches.

  • None of this, by the way, scratches the surface of the FO’s direct problems with the fans. From the Iron Front controversy to the lack of urgency in requiring vaccinations to the treatment of the Portland Thorns, there’s plenty of ongoing friction between those two entities.

What Now?

This article may be obsolete by playoff time. MLS is the League of Chaos, and maybe Gio will have the squad winning in Seattle this weekend. Maybe they’ll make another run at the cup come playoff time.

Maybe we’ll see the unstoppable offensive dynamic of Blanco, Yimmi, Jarek, and Valeri render defense unnecessary. After all, we’re still yet to see all four of them on the pitch at the same time. Maybe Diego Chará and Eryk Williamson become a lockdown duo in midfield or the Timbers find their best formation.

But maybe they won’t. In all likelihood, the Timbers will slink into the playoffs and get beat by a better team. Or miss out entirely.

That certainly seems the most likely outcome considering Savarese’s post-match comments Saturday night.

There is no short-term plan. There are long-term steps that have to be taken to revamp this club. I’m still waiting to be convinced we have the right people in charge to take those steps.

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