The New York Red Bulls’ 2018 MLS season starts at home with a visit from Portland Timbers, now under the guidance of former MetroStars legend, Giovanni Savarese.
Stumptown Footy’s Will Conwell graciously submitted to a few questions from OaM in the name of filling us in on what has changed and what has stayed the same in Portland with the arrival of new management.
Once A Metro: Very early days under Savarese in Portland, but what seem to be the primary differences between Gio’s approach to the game and what we used to see from the Timbers when Caleb Porter was on the sidelines?
Will Conwell: Despite a full slate of preseason games, the differences between the Timbers under Savarese and under Porter are only just starting to shine through. Unfortunately, the Timbers’ loss of Diego Chara as he continues to build match fitness following his broken foot at the end of the 2017 season makes it difficult to pin down what differences are deliberate and which are the result of the Timbers missing arguably their second most important player of the team’s MLS era.
If there is one defining difference that we can pin on the change in coaches, however, it is a willingness to change up the team’s tactical approach mid-match under Savarese. Porter was, sometimes unfairly, known as a system guy during his time in charge of the Timbers and despite several brief forays into other formations, the Timbers taking to the pitch in the 4-5-1 seemed inevitable while he was in charge. Moreover, while the Timbers would sometimes make a major tactical change during the course of a match, Porter was better known for small tweaks to his lineup, making adjustments rather than wholesale changes.
With Savarese, the Timbers seem to have a coach who is more willing to make big changes. The side are still settling in this year and we have yet to see the first choice XI make a switch away from the 4-5-1, but in-game adjustments have been plentiful and have yielded exciting results. Of course, just what ends up being the Timbers’ default set up remains to be seen, but the willingness to find something new could see the Timbers finish the season looking like a very different side than in years past.
OaM: How do you expect Portland to set up for this game?
WC: There have been glimpses of the 4-4-2 during preseason, but so far the Timbers have stuck with their tried and true 4-5-1/4-4-1-1, putting Diego Valeri underneath Fanendo Adi and hoping to profit from the 2017 MLS MVP’s late-arriving runs, nose for goal, and ability to bring others into the play. It seems like that the Timbers are not quite ready to make the switch away from their most familiar set-up, but with Savarese at the reins and plenty of new players getting a chance in the 18, change is in the air.
If the Timbers do pull the trigger and switch things up, however, it opens up a world of possibilities for the side. Playing Adi, who still looks like he is working his way back into form after missing much of last season due to injury, alongside dynamic newcomer Samuel Armenteros is a possibility that has had Timbers fans salivating since his arrival.
Of course, even while playing in the same set-up that that we have seen in seasons past, the Timbers are now without a key piece in their approach: Darlington Nagbe. While the expectations around him are often a puzzle for fans and coaches alike, Nagbe is undoubtedly one of the best transition players that MLS has ever seen, allowing the Timbers to hold the ball and work it up the pitch with remarkably little risk. Without Nagbe, the Timbers are forced to take a very difference approach to getting the ball into the attack, putting the onus on less tidy, but more attack-minded players like Sebastian Blanco and Andy Polo to carry the ball forward.
OaM: Do we have to pretend to be rivals now that Gio is your coach?
WC: Savarese is still a new arrival in Portland, but as he has done everywhere that his career has taken him, Gio is quickly winning the hearts of Timbers fans. Thankfully, with some rare exceptions, Timbers fans are not the jealous sort and do not need to compete for Gio’s affections.
It helps that the Red Bulls are an Eastern Conference side.
Frankly, when the Timbers and Red Bulls have faced off early in the season, it has almost always been an exciting match; the 2013 meeting between the two sides, Valeri’s Timbers debut, remains one of my favorite games despite featuring one of the worst-ever defensive performances from a Timbers player. (Did you know that Mikael Silvestre was briefly a Timber?)
So, no, we don’t have to pretend to be rivals. We already get enough of that from the Earthquakes.
Predicted lineup: (4-5-1) Gleeson; Farfan, Ridgewell, Mabiala, Valentin; Guzman, Paredes; Blanco, Valeri, Polo; Adi
Many thanks to Will Conwell and Stumptown Footy. Find OaM’s answers to SF’s questions here, and follow @williamconwell on Twitter.