PORTLAND, Ore. – In the week leading up to the Portland Timbers’ season opener Saturday against the Philadelphia Union, head coach Caleb Porter talked a lot about getting the chemistry right among the group.
Now, after playing the Union to a 1-1 draw in a game that featured stretches where the Timbers seemed just a touch off, that quest is ongoing.
“I feel like we’re definitely close,” midfielder and captain Will Johnson said after a recent training session at Providence Park ahead of Sunday’s home match against the Chicago Fire (3 pm ET, UniMas). “It’s never going to be perfect in the first game of the year, and it wasn’t. What I see is a little more urgency that we need. … I think it’s shaking off the rust, I think it’s integrating a couple new pieces and I think it’s everybody finding their role.”
Perhaps lost in the elevated expectations heaped on the Timbers this season – following last year’s regular season Western Conference championship and first-ever trip to the MLS Cup playoffs in Porter’s first season at the helm – is the fact that Portland are indeed bringing new pieces into the fold.
Striker Ryan Johnson, the team’s second-leading goal scorer last year with nine goals, is now gone. In Johnson’s place is 23-year-old Argentine Maximiliano Urruti, who only joined the club last summer and appeared in just five games.
Portland’s playmaker, Diego Valeri, also missed most of the preseason after recovering from offseason sports hernia surgery.
“The thing I keep reminding myself, and I think it’s important that people remember, is we still have new guys up there,” Porter said. “Gaston, Maxi is still a new player here, Diego’s played a few games but he was injured, so we’ve got still some new pieces, some new moving parts. And we’re getting that chemistry right still. It’s going to take time.”
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Porter said that manifested itself during a 15- to 20-minute stretch in the first half against Philly that he said “gave them confidence and rattled us a little bit.”
He said there were more turnovers, directly leading to Philly chances, than he would have liked.
“We have to do better playing out the back," Porter said. "If we’re going to be a possession team, we can’t give the ball away cheaply like we did.”
He also said that once ball security improved in the second half, Portland started creating a lot of chances, but they still only managed two shots on goal for the game. It was a 93rd-minute header by Fernandez from a corner kick that led to the draw, while other chance were simply close calls, a shot blocked away at the last second or a cross just missing its mark.
“We need to be a little more opportunistic in those moments,” Porter said. “A lot of times the chance has to happen quick.”
Fortunately, they've got a little more time to get that mix just right.
“We’re one game into the season so no time to hit the panic button,” Johnson said. “But it’s an area of weakness and one that we’re addressing and one that we will improve.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.