Portland Timbers formula for success based on more than just soccer | Charles Boehm

Diego Valeri - Portland Timbers - August 11, 2020


It’s a Spanish term with multiple contexts, the most famous being its prominence in Cuban vernacular, where it alludes to the daily grind to “solve” or “get by” in a country chronically starved of resources and materials.

Giovanni Savarese traces his lineage to Venezuela and Italy, not Cuba. But his Portland Timbers team seems to have a resolver ethos woven deep into their collective fabric – a resourcefulness, a willingness and commitment to do whatever is required to surmount the challenge in front of them and churn forward to face the next one.

It’s bonded them tightly and equipped them well to handle the particular environs of tournaments, be it the MLS Cup Playoffs, the U.S. Open Cup or MLS is Back, which they won with Tuesday night’s 2-1 final victory over Orlando City.

As Matt Doyle has detailed, Portland have been adept at many aspects of the game over the past month in Florida. They returned to a foundational element of Savarese’s tenure on Tuesday, though, recognizing Orlando’s quality in the buildup and out wide and deferring to a deeper block against the ball, with rare but flowing transitions on those few occasions where they could break out.

The stats tell a story in this regard. PTFC enjoyed just 36 percent of possession, but parlayed it into proportionately more attacking menace than their adversaries, directing six shots on target, drawing 17 fouls and earning five corner kicks. And those set pieces made the difference in the end, leading to both of their goals on the night.

“I thought that our game plan was executed well,” Savarese said afterwards. “We closed the spaces through the middle. We didn't allow them to be able to penetrate too many times. We knew their combinations on top of the box, we knew that they're dangerous with the wide players, with their fullback Ruan on the right side and on the left-hand side with Nani. And I thought that the guys did a great job to make sure that we didn’t allow them to be able to get into those spaces so they can hurt us.”

Also key: You don’t want to fall behind against Portland. Aside from some late wobbles that required a penalty-kick shootout to dispatch FC Cincinnati in the Round of 16, they have managed games well even when not fully in control of them, showing the preparation, intelligence and awareness of this veteran-heavy side.

“I think the first probably 20 minutes were the most difficult,” Savarese said about Tuesday's final. “And then little by little we started getting the ball a little bit more, moving it around, getting a little bit more possession, attacking the spaces in behind, being more dangerous. And scoring the first goal was a very important sign for us to feel that we were following the right path.”

There’s a spirit and a durability about these Timbers, who share their duties across many shoulders and are chock-full of characters and personalities, starting with their head coach – whose animated sideline demeanor gave us enough gif-able moments at the MLS is Back Tournament to compile a highlight reel – and running all the way down the roster. This, it turns out, is a big part of how you exit a 41-day bubble experience with a smile on your face and a trophy in your hand.

“It’s a nice Lenten period away from home,” deadpanned goalkeeper Steve Clark, perhaps the quirkiest of the bunch, “but it’s so fun to win.”

To take Clark’s phrase and run with it, the Timbers have flipped the usual order of the religious calendar and done Lent first, allowing them to have a mini-Mardi Gras after. It’s a fitting cap to a long and psychologically testing experience – on Tuesday Larrys Mabiala and Sebastian Blanco spoke movingly of the pain of separation from their spouses and children, the tearful video chats and phone calls with little ones back home – that has led them to competitive, financial and personal rewards.

“A lot of sacrifice. And it hasn't been easy. But as I said before we came here with a purpose,” said Savarese. “We were very content around the players, the staff, the togetherness was incredible. And it felt very much like the [MLS Cup] run of 2018 because the guys were very fresh mentally. If there was another match, I can tell you that the guys would be up to [it], because the guys wanted to make sure that we went back with something important.”

He and his staff will no doubt continue to work furiously to fine-tune their formula for sustained regular-season success, but in the meantime, PTFC are bosses of the bubble, kings of the knockout – and perhaps most intriguingly, they’ll get to take their show on the road in the Concacaf Champions League next year.

I can’t wait to see the Rose City resolver put to use on that stage.