Opinion: Timbers need stability after latest loss

by Charlie Folkestad
pablo-bonilla-stability

The Portland Timbers fell to the Los Angeles Galaxy 3-1 Sunday afternoon in Providence Park.

This result was unacceptable on many levels to Timbers fans, who have dealt with waves of club scandals over the past few seasons. Even national anthem singer Madison Stanley voiced her opinion against the club’s recent actions.

Off-field frustrations can often boil over to overly-harsh on-field criticisms. Some fans are more concerned with the community aspect the Timbers provide than the on-field results. Others couldn’t care less and are purely concerned with goals in nets and points on the table.

But absolutely no one is happy when the team is losing.

Portland now have six points from six matches in 2022. Their undefeated home streak since October 20th, 2021 officially came to an end Sunday, though losing MLS Cup to NYCFC on penalties hardly felt like a draw.

Excuses

Let’s get this out of the way. The Timbers have a TON of injuries. No single combination of this back line has played consecutive full 90s together this season.

The two starting center backs, Dario Zuparic and Larrys Mabiala, both began the season injured. Only the former has returned. Pablo Bonilla just got back into the squad after a visa issue.

Sebastian Blanco, Portland’s best player, is not fit. He made his first start last weekend, but was taken off after 73 minutes with a planned substitution. The game changes when he’s on thew pitch, and he’s only been there about a third of the time this season.

Eryk Williamson just got back from injury. He hasn’t fully recovered from a torn ACL last year.

Felipe Mora, Portland’s leading goal scorer last season, has not played a single minute yet. Portland’s third-string striker, Tega Ikoba, hasn’t either.

There are dark clouds hanging over the organization. None of the current players or coaches are at fault for that.

That being said, goals drive progress.

Necessary improvements

Bluntly, two of Portland’s Designated Players are underperforming, while the other one is injured.

There’s an argument to be made that Yimmi Chara is performing at a DP-level this season, but not in the last few weeks. Other than his bicycle kicks (which, yes, we do need to acknowledge and appreciate), Yimmi only makes the easy pass in the final third. He’s not going to break a team down like Blanco can.

I’ve defended Jaroslaw Niezgoda in the past, especially during his first season when he had an insanely good scoring rate (1.04 per 90). But he hasn’t reached that level since tearing his ACL in November of that 2020 season.

He has the skill to do so, too. That amazing flick in Dallas showed us his quality. But we need to see it on the pitch, otherwise he’s never winning the starting spot over Felipe Mora.

I tend to think Gio knows what he’s doing tactically, but I still don’t understand dragging “Jaro” out wide. I guess he created the chance that led to a penalty against Orlando from the wing, but still. It’s weird.

Aljaz Ivacic hasn’t been good enough, either. We knew he wasn’t going to be as good as Steve Clark, and I still commend the club’s decision not to splash money for an aging goalkeeper, but Ivacic needs to be better. His PSxG-GA number (+0.02, 52nd percentile in MLS) is bang-average. I’ll stop short of blaming him for any of the Timbers’ problems (we’ll get to the back line in a second) but he can certainly be part of the solution.

Dairon Asprilla reached an elite level last season, but he’s been nearly invisible since scoring in week one. He’s another guy who could step up.

Alright, time for the defense discussion. Portland brought in both Claudio Bravo and Josecarlos Van Rankin prior to the 2021 season. They were supposed to hold down starting spots with consistent performances, and did for much of last season.

But 2022 has been a disaster for both of them. Each have a red card and have struggled to do what their position says — DEFEND!

Moreover, the replacement options have also been rough. Pablo Bonilla’s sending off may not have been deserved, but it wasn’t like he was having a great match anyway. Justin Rasmussen is their only other fullback option, and he’s a rookie. He replaced Bonilla at right back despite being left-footed.

Both Bravo and Van Rankin have the ability to play well. We saw it last year when Portland made MLS Cup. (Bravo in particular has some great attacking movements.) But it’s time for them to start doing it, because it hasn’t been here yet this season.

How can the Timbers change?

(Despite the obvious changes that could but won’t occur at the highest level of the club, of course.)

Have the players play better. I have full confidence in Gio Savarese. That’s the good news. These matches barely matter if the Timbers can get hot going into the playoffs, which his Portland teams do more often than not.

This Saturday’s match in British Columbia is a chance to turn things around. Vancouver have four points from five matches. It’s a rivalry. Both teams are in really bad spots despite making big signings in recent years.

I would love to see Gio shake up the starting XI and remind usual starters that they need to perform better. These are the types of matches that can either bury a team mentally or spark better performances.

Point of clarity

Before this rant is over, I’d like to make just one more point: There seems to be a disconnect in discourse which conflates the “Timbers Army” and 107IST.

As it’s broadly understood, the Timbers Army is the people occupying sections of general admission seats in Providence Park. The Timbers Army waves flags and chants, but 107IST makes the decisions for the Timbers Army. Personally, I consider myself a member of both. As of this year, I’ve paid my dues to 107IST and can join in on meetings should I choose to.

There’s obviously a ton of crossover between people sitting in GA and 107IST, but the difference was apparent during the “five minutes of silence” against Orlando City. Prior to the match, 107IST sent out an email detailing the planned demonstration. But many fans sitting in the TA section didn’t know about it, and there was understandable confusion.

I don’t see a clear solution to this. Some fans don’t want to pay the yearly 107IST fee to be part of the more “official” fan club — constantly purchasing tickets is enough of a financial barrier. I was also in this boat until last December.

But there is something to be said about everyone in the section being on the same page. It makes demonstrations more effective and creates a better community. Again, I don’t see a simple solution to this tension.

What I can say, though, is that protecting your own “relevance” as a fan is never worth alienating people. The TA has had its share of gatekeeping issues in the past, and they do no good for anyone. We all go to the stadium for the same reason: to watch the Timbers play soccer.

Thank you for reading this rant. If you’d like more rants, check out the Double Post Podcast, which I run with my friend Reece. We post weekly during the season.

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