It feels like “malaise” is the right word.
Which is to say there wasn’t a lot to distinguish this Portland Timbers season to the good or the catastrophically bad. There was some actual bad, of course – you don’t dismiss your coach of five years if there wasn’t – but it never got late-Chivas USA or early-FC Cincinnati level of disastrous out there.
I could honestly just leave it there, since that really does encapsulate the whole season. Just… meh. But for the sake of completionism, let’s stroll through all of 2023 and hit the high points:
• A poor start as they took just one win from their first seven. Goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic, who had been the hero of 2022 (almost single-handedly keeping Portland in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs race), somehow lost his starting job and wasn’t afraid to let folks know his displeasure with head coach Gio Savarese. Eryk Williamson unfortunately tore his ACL again, then David Ayala did as well.
• A better-but-still scuffling spring followed that, as the team still conceded too many goals while winning too few games. Around this time, Santiago Moreno – the dynamic young attacker who at times very much looked the part of a future star – followed Ivacic’s lead and took his shots at Savarese, demanding a trade.
• A mostly meh summer followed, with a few wins and a couple of good Leagues Cup performances in losses to both Monterrey-based Liga MX giants. There was not much to suggest, however, that things were about to turn around.
• Things did not, in fact, turn around. After a couple of weeks off following that Leagues Cup elimination, Portland went down to Houston and got beaten nearly to death. They lost 5-0 to the rampant Dynamo and that, it turns out, was the final nail for Savarese. He was let go the following day.
It felt at that point like Portland would go quietly. This season was going to be a big, fat, nothing-burger. Sure, they’d gone out and made a record signing last winter to bring in Evander, and sure, they’d squeezed one more good year out of Diego Chara. But… meh. There was nothing particularly promising to hang your hat on with any of it.
Then interim head coach Miles Joseph managed to light a spark. He lost his first game in the saddle, but went 5-0-2 (W-L-D) over the next seven to push the Timbers back above the playoff line for the first time in months. You could argue they were playing the best ball in the league, and for a chunk of time they were even doing so without Chara (something no previous Timbers head coach had ever been able to pull off).
A point in either of those two games would’ve gotten the Timbers into the playoffs, and maybe would’ve gotten Joseph the full-time job. Instead, it was an early offseason – and on Nov. 6 the Phil Neville era officially began.
Formation & Tactics
Neville has said Joseph will remain on staff, which seems to me like a good idea because Joseph clearly knows a thing or two about how to get this roster to hum. Key to their turnaround under him:
- Defending a lot higher. Their average passing sequence started 49.2 meters from goal, which was second in the league. Under Savarese, they were mid-table at 45.8 meters.
It wasn’t always a 4-3-3 single pivot under Joseph, but it was mostly that, and in playing that shape they got Moreno and Evander on the ball more often, which in turn allowed them to actually generate some quality attacking moments without taking wild-ass risks with the positioning of the fullbacks. And, oh yeah, just having more possession is a good thing for a team that struggled to defend without the ball for most of the past few years.
The Timbers really were a ton of fun over the final 10 games of the season. It was the best ball they’ve played since the MLS is Back Tournament in the summer of 2020.
They played Seattle three times this year and didn’t lose once. That’s not super surprising, as Portland have dominated this rivalry over the past five seasons to the extent that it no longer even feels like a rivalry to any neutrals watching.
The 4-1 win they posted in April was a time capsule performance:
Savarese did a lot of great things with this club – that MLS is Back tourney win and two trips to MLS Cup being the biggest. Timbers fans should also remember him for how thoroughly he owned those Rave Green kids up the road, and this win in particular was one of the most emphatic in the series’ 50-year history.
Every game other than that one above? Again… “malaise” is the word that comes to mind.
The truth, though, is the low point of the Timbers season came in that 5-0 loss to Houston. It’s not just that they got beat – they always lose in Texas, so that wasn’t a surprise – it was the way they just stopped competing.
It felt like the players were sending a message to the front office and ownership. It seems like the front office and ownership heard them loud and clear.
Moreno snapped to life when he got to play on the ball a bunch as a free 8 in Joseph’s 4-3-3. Under Savarese, while playing mostly on the wing, American Soccer Analysis’ all-in-one goals added metric rated Moreno as a below-average contributor at -0.04 g+/96. The Colombian did not provide the type of dribbling dynamism, either in terms of unlocking defenses or simple ball progression, that one hopes for from a winger of his talent.
In 840 minutes under Joseph, Moreno’s g+/96 was +0.20. That was the seventh-best mark in the entire league among field players, and third among midfielders.
Phil, if you’re reading this: 4-3-3 with Santi and Evander as free 8s!!! Please, I beg of you!!!!
The whole thing, but most especially Williamson’s injury.
Five Players to Build Around
- Moreno (AM): You may have figured out by now that I’m pretty high on Santi Moreno.
- Evander (AM/CM): Better when he’s got a more creative force next to him in midfield.
- Chara (DM): I’ll believe he’s done when he tells me, and not a second beforehand.
- Juan Mosquera (RB): Incredible attacking force who needs a lot of help sharpening his defensive instincts.
- Felipe Mora (FW): Came back healthy and fit, and led the line well.
This roster actually doesn’t need a ton of work. A playmaking winger should be one area to target, while center back and goalkeeper are the others.
The rest of the pieces to be very good very quickly are there. Neville’s been dealt a playable hand.