Warshaw: Portland Timbers have an identity, and they're getting back to it

It happened last year, so I’m not sure why anyone was overly worried that it wouldn’t happen this year.

The 2018 Portland Timbers team that made MLS Cup started winless in their first five games of the season. The 2019 team has every single key player returning from that 2018 team. Of the four players you could suggest might count as a key player who is no longer on the roster — Liam Ridgewell, Fanendo Adi, Samuel Armenteros, and Alvas Powell — only Powell started more than half of the games in the 15-game unbeaten streak that resurrected Portland’s 2018 season. Anyone want to suggest he was the difference maker from that team?

The Timbers' problems to start 2018 and 2019 haven’t been about personnel or talent. They’ve been about identity. Specifically, the contradiction between the ideal version of the team and the reality of the roster.

Gio Savarese has an idea in his head of how he wants his team to play. He wants to dominate the game by controlling the ball. The Timbers’ roster, though, does not have players who can dominate the ball. The key figures on the team — Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, Sebastian Blanco, and Larrys Mabiala — are not possession passers. They don’t want to pass and move from side to side to shift a defense. They want to go forward. It’s possible to be a phenomenal passer but not a great possession player. It sounds like a minor distinction, but it’s huge.

The last two seasons, Savarese has opened the year hoping to have the Timbers play in his ideal vision. They got smacked in the face, so he accepted he needed to adjust.

Six games into 2018, the Timbers accepted their identity as a compact, counterattacking team.

Seven games in 2019, the Timbers accepted their identity as a compact, counterattacking team.

It doesn’t mean the Timbers will cruise back to MLS Cup. They definitely have some issues. Namely, Valeri has not looked like an MVP candidate for about nine months now. But, if Portland fans are being honest with themselves, they can acknowledge the team didn’t exactly look like an MLS Cup team for much of 2018, either. They weren’t playing teams off the field like Atlanta, the Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City, and LAFC were. They were, however, a team that could be incredibly hard to play against, a team who could score incredible goals, and a team who could grind out results. With two wins in a row, they are that team again. When they want to be.

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