Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese is probably the last coach that NYCFC would prefer to face in a knockout round setting.
In four all-time matches against NYCFC, Savarese has four victories: MLS regular season wins in 2018 and 2019 with the Timbers and two U.S. Open Cup triumphs in 2015 (on PKs) and 2016 when he led the NY Cosmos. He matched wits with different NYCFC coaches during that span and on Saturday he'll have a fresh game plan for newcomer Ronny Deila, noting that his Timbers tend to "change certain things to be a team with particular details in each game."
That's a formula tailor made for tournament success, and Savarese led the Timbers to the MLS Cup final in his first year at the helm with a combination of tactical strategy and the heroics of Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco.
It wasn't a Cinderella run, per se, but the fifth-seeded Timbers weren't expected to advance nearly as far as they did. Their story didn't have a Hollywood ending, as they fell in the final to Atlanta United. They have a chance to make amends at the MLS is Back Tournament.
"We dream about being in another final," Savarese told reporters. "We came here to compete and to get to the final. It’s what we’re all striving for."
The Timbers are preparing to face NYCFC in the quarterfinals on Saturday (10:30 pm ET | FS1, TUDN, TSN) with some new faces, but still led by Valeri, Blanco, Diego Chara and others. The attacking depth chart, though, looks a bit different.
Alongside 2018 MLS Cup holdover Jeremy Ebobisse are Designated Players Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Yimmi Chara, as well as Chilean forward Felipe Mora. All three players joined this offseason with high expectations, and it's given Savarese plenty of options, particularly up top, between Ebobisse, Niezgoda and Mora.
It leaves the coach with some difficult choices. Ebobisse has three goals at the tournament while Niezgoda made his MLS debut in Orlando and scored his first goal after arriving as the Polish league's leading scorer. Mora started Portland's first two games of 2020 this winter.
"As a coach you want to be in this situation of having difficult decisions to make," Savarese said. "They’re all performing and they’re all doing well and that’s what we need."
One roster spot that Savarese doesn't have to think much about is first-choice goalkeeper Steve Clark, who the club still have immense faith in despite an error against FC Cincinnati. He immediately made amends in the penalty kick shootout, anyway.
"I think that he responded well and I had trust and faith in him," defender Larrys Mabiala said. "I know if there’s one guy on the team that can bounce back from that it’s him. I was not really concerned."
Clark and Portland come up against an NYCFC side also stacked with attacking talent, including Heber, Alexandru Mitrita and Maxi Moralez. Moralez picked up an injury in the group stage, though he was able to play 54 minutes off the bench in his side's 3-1 win over Toronto FC in the Round of 16. He picked up a goal and an assist during his time on the pitch.
"When Maxi is on the field, New York is a completely different team," Valeri said. "Maxi has the ability to manage the tempo, connect with teammates, change the pace, assist and he’s a player who connects the lines. The team begins to have an attack that is very different and that’s not taking into account the vision he has for the game and his ability to score. I think he changes the game from the way they’ve been playing lately and they’re adapting to a new playing style under a new coach."
On top of striving for another trophy, Valeri has his eyes set on another prize that would come with winning the MLS is Back Tournament: Qualification to the Concacaf Champions League. Valeri and the Timbers haven't played in the CCL since 2016-'17, when they failed to advance past the group stage. They also failed to advance past the group stage in 2014-'15.
"In my view it’s probably the most important thing," Valeri said. "I really want to play in Concacaf. It’s a great motivation for me and for the group it’s the same and it gives us an opportunity to put the team in an international cup. That’s a different level of prestige and it’s a great competition. So besides representing our club and winning a trophy, the fact that we have the chance to compete again in Concacaf, it‘s amazing."