Disclaimer: Video-assisted refereeing will be discussed in the following introduction. Reader discretion is advised.
The Red Bulls embraced their chaotic side on Saturday, playing an absolutely absurd encounter with the Chicago Fire. A surreal night at Soldier Field may have extended past some Red Bulls players curfews, but the game had it all; a weather delay halfway through the game, confusingly structured halftimes, two red cards within three minutes, and a reminder from MSG that Mike Magee was a pretty good soccer player.
However one of the more excruciating moments of the match came on the penalty shout in the dying moments of the match, as the redeemed Patryk Klimala was taken down on the edge of the penalty area. The alleged foul took place in the 86th minute, and it was a 4 minute wait as referee Jon Freeman consulted with VAR officials, and then the monitor, before the penalty was finally taken. VAR technology has had its fair share of criticism, but one of the less talked about aspects of the system has been the time it takes to make decisions. Not necessarily the length of time taken, but the time itself. The time spent waiting for VAR decisions to be made is a separate reality in itself, a limbo that doesn’t even feel real. It has no beginning, television audiences typically spend a few seconds in confusion over whether or not a play is being reviewed or not, and in-person crowds may not ever know.
As one slowly realizes what is taking place, the clandestine nature of the VAR room creates an air of mystery and dread. Who is in there? Are they talking to the referee? Their conversation remains a mystery to all, they could either be talking about the nuances of the modern handball rule or the results of the Mets game. You’re never quite sure how long it’ll last either, not sure if you have time to go grab a snack or switch the channel to said Mets game. You wonder if you could fix your relationship with your father, walk the dog, and before you know it the handball is awarded. The rhythm of the game resumes, you sink back into the soccer vortex, never finding out if the Mets won. What you can find out, however, is the Portland Timber’s tactics. Here they are.
The Portland Timbers visit New York in a conference cross-over this Saturday, and the team will certainly be looking to take advantage of their trip out East. The organization has had one of the longer histories of MLS teams, originally existing as a team in the original NASL in the 70s and 80s, before the dissolving of the league saw the organization bounce around various experimental leagues and the USL before hopping on the MLS train in 2010.
Since then the organization has had one of the most successful runs of any expansion team, winning their first Western Conference title four years after joining the league, and an MLS Cup two years later. However despite always being contenders, they had an inconsistent streak about them as brilliant, dominant seasons can often be followed by disastrous ones. Both the first Western Conference title and the MLS Cup seasons were followed by seasons where they failed to make the playoffs, leaving the famously passionate supporter group baffled.
In 2018, Portland made the surprising decision to hire Venezuelan coach Giovanni Savarese to fill their head coaching position. The former MetroStar player and academy head was fresh off an eight-year stint with NASL “club” New York Cosmos, where he had much success in his early years before significant financial woes led the team to struggle. Savarese had never managed in MLS, and for a club that had just won their second-ever Western Conference title the move was shocking to say the least. However he quickly made himself at home, dragging the club to an MLS Cup silver medal in his first year. The team exited in the first round in 2019 and 2020 before returning to the MLS Cup in 2021, again losing out to their Eastern opponents. Savarese has stabilized the club, made them solid playoff contenders year after year. However despite always being dangerous, one gets the sense that they’re really good, but never great. They have good players and are always a hard team to play against, but at the highest level they’ve fallen time and time again.
Portland fans have enjoyed attacking soccer since their founding, and Savarese has not been one to change that. Portland’s classic 4-2-3-1 has brought them success over the years, the attack built around longtime starter Diego Valeri has been among the top 3 scorers in the West for the past 3 years. The team is monstrous in transition, playing directly and quickly to swarm opposing goals. There won’t ever be a full 90 minute press, but the squad can turn on the jets in an instant and raise their intensity. Savarese has squeezed the very best out of his veterans, this season alone he’s given 2610 minutes to players over 30 years old. Many of their best players over the last few years have had some grey hair, the aforementioned Diego Valeri was 27 when he joined the Timbers and left at age 36 as arguably their best ever player. Sebastian Blanco and Diego Chara have both had crucial roles at the club for years now, currently aged 34 and 36 respectively. Management values experience highly, and a club that knows what it’s doing and when to do it is always a tough one to beat.
But after the MLS Cup run in 2021, it seems old age is starting to catch up to the Timbers. Valeri is gone, off to a final swansong at his boyhood club Lanus. Blanco has only managed to start 3 games, struggling to put 90 minute shifts in, and other elder statesmen such as Larrys Mabiala and Dario Zuparic have been unable to keep the same levels they did in 2021. Diego Chara is timeless and youthful as ever, but the club is very much in transition in 2022.
A poor start to the season sees them currently 10th in the Western Conference, nowhere near the force they once were. The attack has only scored 10 times in as many games, and the defense has been leakier than the elite levels expected of them, conceding the 4th highest in the Conference. It’s still early days, and Portland’s habit of starting seasons inconsistently leaves them in no way in a full blown crisis, but the team will be itching for a return to what has become normality against the Red Bulls. Perfectly adept at soaking up pressure, Portland have the tactical flexibility to go toe-to-toe with Struber and his team, leaving it up to the Austrian to figure out how to break them down. They have the quality to give the Red Bulls serious problems on their day, and are also more than capable of producing some stinkers such as their not-great 2-0 loss to a 10-man Colorado Rapids last week. The matchup should be a fun one, as the Red Bulls attempt to get their frustrating home campaign on the road.
Some Adidas designer must have really good memories in Portland, because the Timbers have been gifted with not one, but two great kits for the 2022 campaign. Against the Red Bulls they’ve opted for their home kits, a natural, rugged forest green shirt and pants combo, completed with classy gold accents. The shirt is split down the middle, a slightly darker shade of green adorning the left side. Everything, from the perfect shades of gold and green, to the smart button look, coalesces for one of the finest in the league. The team certainly benefits from an outstanding color scheme, but it’s often easy to fall into the trap of simplicity. Portland’s selection is clean and elegant, minimalist in an iOS sense rather than a Warner Brothers one.
But despite the brilliance of the jersey, the unjustly ignored away kit has to be celebrated as well, a bold and unique design, decorated with flowers and a rare pink coloring. The “Heritage Road” secondary jersey was released to great aplomb in 2022, and for good reason. It’s a risk, plain and simple. The colors are radical but fresh, besides Inter Miami and the singular Real Madrid away kit no professional soccer team really wears pink. And yet Adidas has doubled down on the color, using a soothing lighter shade on the jersey itself while a darker shade serves as contrast for the trim. If the color wasn’t shocking enough, the zealous designer added a floral pattern to his madness, the roses that adorn the kit paying homage to the Portland’s moniker “City of Roses”. Everything about the kit is out of the ordinary, completely bursting the bubble of the normally monotonous MLS kit template. And yet despite all the chaos, it works. It just works. One can only wish Savarese’s men could find a way to wear both kits on Saturday, perhaps adorning one for each half, or splitting the team in two and playing the inaugural game of three-way soccer. The kit appreciator community would be all the better for it.
A resounding 10 out of 10, with an extra point for having a good alternative in case of emergency.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the starting striker spot at the New York Red Bulls is up for grabs. The 9s at the club seem to be alternating bad and promising stretches, and the position that’s been a talking point for weeks has in no way been set in stone. Klimala was the original starter, after a dry run and the arrival of Ashley Fletcher the Englishman seemed to be the new main man. But despite promising beginnings against New England, the early hype has slightly worn off as Fletcher failed to make any tangible impact on performances despite showing good hold-up play and passing. The Englishman leads the team in shots per 90, but puts a very low percentage of those shots on goal, hitting the target with 22.2% of his shots (For reference, Tom Barlow leads the team’s shooting percentage with 60%). And when Patryk Klimala is able to come on as a substitute and score two comeback-securing goals, one has to imagine that the Pole is once again the frontrunner for the spot. He’s once again thrust into the spotlight as he made the first step in reclaiming his starting role against Chicago, and one has to assume he’ll be given the chance to make his second. Or maybe Struber ditches both Klimala and Fletcher and starts Tom Barlow. With the Austrian, one never knows — especially with the news that Klimala was covid-positive this week and missed multiple days of training.
Yimmi & Diego Chara
The Columbians have found a home together in Oregon, becoming dual stars in a respectable Timbers squad. Diego, the older of the two, joined in 2011 as the organization’s first ever Designated Player, and has since established himself as one of the best defensive midfielders in the league, continuing his dominance even at age 36. Yimmi, a dynamic winger who bounced around South America for years before joining his brother in 2020, found himself a regular starter in Savarese’s system in 2021. Together the pair have become mainstays in the starting XI despite increasing in age, and are likely to play again against the Red Bulls. Diego can dominate midfields on his own; he’s constantly on the ball, in the 97th and 92nd percentile of MLS midfielders in touches per 90 in the defensive penalty area and defensive third respectively. Despite standing only 5’7, he’s incredibly strong and able to win the ball back consistently, whether the referee approves or not. Yimmi evidently took the attacking genes in the family, a quick and lethal bicycle-kick enthusiast, he’s in the middle of most Portland attacks, averaging 2.61 key passes per game in 2021. Not since Sean and Dylan Nealis (the Neali) has MLS seen such a potent brotherly duo, but besides the fact that they’re brothers on the same team, they are each fine players in their own right that New York should be worried about. Diego will be looking to break up anything the Red Bulls try to create, with the Timbers happy to absorb pressure and give the Red Bulls the task of breaking them down, he’ll be more than happy to act as a wrench in the gears of the Red Bulls creative forces. And if the Red Bulls are caught in transition, Yimmi will be more than happy to drive forward and cause problems for the backline, already leading Portland in goals. Both will be key to Portland’s success on Saturday, and will look to be known as more than just a trivia answer on gameday.
Wikelman Carmona & Cameron Harper
Carmona and Harper were both acquired with great hope in 2021, and while neither fully lived up to the promise in their debut seasons, they are still two talents to watch for the Red Bulls. Carmona was by far the more successful of the pair, amassing 15 starts, but his final tally of 1 goal and 1 assist left much to be desired from the Venezuelan teen. His confidence and creative energy shone through, but an obvious lack of experience kept him from earning more minutes. Harper was… not as great. He started the season with some late substitute appearances, had a strange encounter with the New England Revolution where he was substituted on in the 59th minute before being taken off in the 85th, and promptly spent the rest of the year with Red Bulls II. Advertised as a pacy, direct winger with boatloads of dribbling ability, the young American was seen as too raw by Struber and his staff, and was never really given a chance. Both Carmona and Harper have been out injured since preseason, and coincidentally both made their returns with Red Bulls II on the same match in a loss to Detroit City last Saturday.
The young duo will be looking to make their return to the senior bench against Portland, and may be looking for a chance farther ahead. Carmona is the most natural central attacking midfielder the squad has, and despite the solidifying of the Luquinhas-Fernandez-Morgan attacking trio in recent weeks, Carmona can look to build on earlier promise to make a case for being the first man off the bench. Harper does not have as much to build on, however his positional versatility was one of the reasons he was given the prestigious distinction of being nominated by yours truly to be the squad’s breakout player in 2022. Winger depth is currently thin, in recent weeks Struber has opted to switch to two-striker formations after taking out a member of his attacking trio, mainly due to not having any wingers to maintain the triadic setup and not trusting Zach Ryan to slot in at attacking midfield. Besides the more defensively oriented Christian Casseres Jr., Harper is the only natural winger that can fill up the bench, and could also feature at wingback when Struber fancies playing three in the back. Carmona or Harper will almost certainly not start against Portland, and they more than likely won’t play at all. However if they are selected to look on from the bench, it could mean that reinforcements are on the way sooner rather than later for the Red Bulls.
Portland will be no easy match for New York, but recent struggles in Cascadia should be enough for the in-form road Bulls to take the 3 points in a 2-1 win.