Portland Timbers find success with constant tweaks to lineups and formation

BEAVERTON, Ore.—In the mind of Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese, once your movements and system become predictable, you are toast.

That’s why it’s not surprising that “Always be unpredictable,” is an axiom often heard on the training grounds of the Timbers' practice facility. And this philosophy permeates the Timbers' gameplan every time they take the field.

That may help to explain why, despite a year of relatively good health, the Timbers have opted to start 24 different players in 2018. All the while, Savarese, until very late in the season, never fielded the same lineup twice, using eight different formations during the season. The end result: a club-record 16 players different Timbers players scored a goal in 2018 en route to a spot in the Western Conference Championship.

When Savarese says that every player on the roster is important, he means it.

“That's the tough job of the coach to be make those decisions,” Savarese said to media members ahead of Sunday’s Western Conference Championship first leg against Sporting Kansas City. “The good thing is the players are making it very difficult for me to make that decision because everybody is training well, everybody is ready to play.”

Timbers manager Giovanni Savarese is all smiles after the Timbers ousted rivals Seattle in a Western Conference semifinal series. | USA Today Sports Images

While this egalitarian approach has served Portland well in 2018, it can cause a stir when veteran players are involved. That's what happened when former team captain Liam Ridgewell was dropped from the lineup in the third game of the season. Goal scorer Samuel Armenteros, one of the club's higher profile offseason signings, has also been replaced in the lineup by second-year player Jeremy Ebobisse.

In both cases, Savarese was able to deftly navigate the Timbers towards the postseason by making a big decision instead of playing it safe.

“Everybody has the opportunity to show in practice that they are doing well in order to get the opportunity,” Savarese stated in reference to his equal-opportunity approach. “Whoever's going to step in, I know is going to do the job.”

This approach has fostered a strong spirit of group camaraderie — Savarese calls it "an entire army, a family that ticks together to accomplish a goal" — which the head coach has built upon in his first season at the helm.

“The guys are definitely ready to be able to perform,” Savarese continued. “We have a plan. I know [Sporting Kansas City] have a plan. They're going to be difficult. They are a good team. But we feel pretty good about going in and playing at home.

"Everybody is sharp. Everybody is ready. Everybody's mentally prepared to make sure they give what we need to give in [both] games.”


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