It all just kind of fell apart, didn’t it?
A GIF is worth a thousand words.
They lost Felipe Mora to injury basically from the jump, and Sebastian Blanco never fully came back, and Larrys Mabiala showed his age, and the fullbacks showed their inexperience, and Jaroslaw Niezgoda looks headed for the door, and Eryk Williamson was marginalized, and none of the other young players, save for Santiago Moreno, stepped up and showed that they were starting caliber.
The whole thing feels like a collection of mismatched parts, one that was held together primarily by Diego Chara’s relentless ability to chew up ground and cover up for the mistakes of his teammates. So when he was absent from the biggest game of the season, it ended predictably.
Formation and Tactics
As usual, Gio Savarese had his Timbers come out in a 4-2-3-1 for most of the year, had them play a deep line and hit via the counter as often as possible, and didn’t build in much in terms of creation via possession.
But a prolonged spring malaise, one exacerbated by the absence of Mora and Savarese’s preference for Dairon Asprilla at center forward (or Yimmi Chara as a false 9 with Asprilla on the right) over Niezgoda precipitated a formation change to more of a 5-4-1 that sometimes acted like a 3-4-3.
The thing that worked best about this wasn’t the formation itself. It’s that getting three big, aerially dominant center backs and Asprilla on the field at the same time made the Timbers absolutely lethal on set pieces for a bit.
They ended up going 8W-2L-6D from the return to play after the June international break until mid-September, and the last of that was a four-game winning streak that put them in firm control of their own playoff destiny. At no point did they look as dangerous as they did during last year’s stretch run, but we’re all used to the Timbers grinding out results when they matter most, especially when the game enters the #TacticsFreeZone.
It really did not get better than that for this team this year.
Staying strictly on the field, it doesn’t get much worse than what amounted to a Decision Day no-show in Utah with a spot in the postseason on the line. RSL were able to slice through the Portland midfield and drive possession directly into the 18 time and time again, and it felt like the fight completely went out of the team once Jefferson Savarino made it 1-0.
This was not the same version of the Timbers as last year’s bunch. Last year’s bunch always seemed to find a way to gut through the toughest moments of the game – of the whole season – and come up with the plays that pushed all along for one more week.
Maybe if Diego Chara had been on the field on Sunday, that’s what we’d have seen. But he wasn’t, and neither Cristhian Paredes nor David Ayala showed the ability to protect the backline like Diego’s done for more than a decade.
The Timbers took a big risk this past offseason when they let Steve Clark – who’s been quietly excellent for years – walk in free agency, betting on Aljaz Ivacic to get the job done as the new No. 1. I have to admit there was not much he’d shown in his two previous years that suggested he was up for the job.
But it turns out that Portland’s bet came good, as Ivacic was spectacular. I had him third in my Goalkeeper of the Year rankings behind Andre Blake and Djordje Petrovic because of plays like this:
That man won them some games all by his lonesome. Just a spectacular season from him.
They sure did hype Ayala before the season, but he sure did seem to be out of his depth whenever he got on the field – to the point that they’ve got to be rethinking his tag as Chara’s heir apparent, at least in the short term.
The numbers are as grim as you could possibly imagine: Portland were 0W-4L-4D with 20 goals allowed in Ayala’s eight starts. In the other 26 games they were a very solid 11W-6L-9D with just 33 goals conceded.
On/off splits aren’t everything, of course. But never has it been more apparent just how irreplaceable Diego Chara is, and just how far they are from finding someone who can credibly soak up minutes for him.
Which leads me to the other disappointment… Williamson should be the answer to that. Back in early 2021, when Chara was sidelined, the big revelation was that Williamson was really, really good as a single pivot d-mid in what was then a 4-3-3. He doesn’t play the position the same way that Chara does, but he was still effective.
But there is clearly a disconnect between Williamson and Savarese, as Williamson was a DNP-CD in the biggest game of the year on Decision Day. They’d have stood a much better chance of walking away from that one with the result they needed if he’d been on the field.
Five Players to Build Around
- Diego Chara (DM): He’ll be 37 early next year, but he still moves like he’s 25 and is the foundation of the whole damn thing.
- Ivacic (GK): Can he put up another year like this one? The Timbers might need him to.
- Moreno (W): I don’t think he’ll end up being a Blanco or Diego Valeri-caliber attacker, but 7g/8a as a 22-year-old is damn good.
- Asprilla (W/FW): Followed up last year’s very solid 10g/3a season with 10g/2a, and you can slot him in anywhere on the front line.
- Claudio Bravo (LB/LWB): Was mostly good, especially after Portland shifted to the 5-4-1 which allowed him to push forward with more abandon.
Is there a rebuild coming? Diego Chara, Blanco and Williamson are their three best players – two of those guys are in their mid-30s, and the other’s on the outs with the head coach.
Mabiala’s also in his mid-30s, while Dairon and Dario Zuparic just crested 30. Felipe Mora will get there next season (will he be back to 100% health, regardless?), and while the rest of the roster is younger, none of them (with the possible exception of Moreno) looks like a foundational piece of a title-contending team. Plus the Timbers do not have a particularly good track record of developing guys up to that level.
They should have some flexibility to go on a shopping spree this winter. I’d expect them to do so – though first there’s the matter of figuring out who’s calling the shots with Gavin Wilkinson gone.