The 2018 MLS season was a dream for the Portland Timbers. MLS Cup finalists, 13-game unbeaten streak, record-setting scoring (63 goals, 41 assists) and even a new coach in Giovanni Savarese. So, it appeared the table was set coming into the 2019 campaign for even more success, and expectations were through the roof. The sky’s the limit, right?
Before we dive into the early numbers for this season, there is one pressing question surrounding the team and their poor start: Is construction to blame?
Construction, you ask? When the search for answers begins, the first place to look is at Providence Park, the team’s home field. A massive $85 million expansion of the stadium has forced the team to begin the year on a 12-game road trip. Ouch.
It is never easy to play on the road and knowing your first home game won’t be until June can be demoralizing. And losing doesn’t help.
After opening this season with a 3-3 draw against the Colorado Rapids, the Timbers lost their next five games, giving up 17 goals. The defense was disorganized and the offense was brutal. The team scored just six goals in those first six games. Star midfielders Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco struggled to find their place on the field, and fans were left to wonder if this was the same team from last year.
Every team dreams of a fast start to the season and they do everything possible to avoid digging a hole they might not be able to escape. It was all doom and gloom as the Timbers sat in last place with an 0-5-1 record. When the league title is decided by points, I can tell you, one point after six games is devastating.
What to do?
In a search for answers, Savarese tinkered with his formation and swapped out his goalkeeper in hopes of sparking the team.
He might just be on to something. The MLS season is a grind. Any stretch of success or failure must be taken with a grain of salt.
But Timbers fans have to be encouraged by the team’s last three games. Three wins in a row!!!
Wait … what?
With a new 4-4-2 formation, Valeria and Blanco have come alive. Three assists and zero goals between the two throughout the losing streak was a cause for concern. But both scored on Saturday in a 2-1 win over Salt Lake and they now have four goals and 10 assists on the year. Valeri has three assists in the last two games. Combine that with a stiffer defense (3 goals allowed during the win streak) and there are reasons for optimism.
When this monumental road trip started, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson stated he would be happy with 12 points when the team returns to Portland on June 1. Three more road games remain, so that number is very reasonable.
How can the success be sustained? The team is hoping Monday’s addition of forward Brian Fernandez from Liga MX will add more scoring punch and possession and take some pressure off Valeri, Blanco and leading scorer Jeremy Ebobisse.
Versatility is Fernandez’s biggest asset, so the team is counting on him to help build on the success of this win streak. The road trip finish line is in sight. Ending the season with 15 of their last 17 games at home has to breed confidence. There’s no place like home, right?
Yes, it is just three games, but the Timbers appear to be headed in the right direction.