On Soccer: Can the Portland Timbers turn around dreary season?
The Portland Timbers, like the weather this spring, have delivered too many gray days.
The Timbers reach the midpoint of their 34-game Major League Soccer schedule on Saturday, June 25, when Colorado visits Providence Park. That match, and a visit from Houston on Wednesday, July 29, give Portland a chance to generate some needed momentum.
The hope is that after the recent rare extended break in the schedule, Giovanni Savarese's team can start to climb from the depths of the standings into a place from which to launch another run at silverware.
Is such a surge realistic?
Well, anyone who has paid attention to the Timbers under Savarese (or, in fact, to MLS-wide trends) has witnessed late-season revivals. Last season's run to the verge of a championship certainly didn't seem realistic when Seattle pummeled Portland at Providence Park or when Austin was playing the Timbers off the field.
So, counting the Timbers out is silly.
Chances are there won't be significant roster moves — no super striker arriving to pour in goals — during the transfer window that's open from July 7 through Aug. 4.
The Timbers roster appears fairly set. One position that might be addressed is outside back, which has been a trouble spot that opponents have consistently exposed. Josecarlos Van Rankin's loan agreement ends June 30. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Timbers move on from the Mexican right back, if the club can secure a replacement.
While major roster moves seem unlikely, Portland's lineup expects to get a significant boost going forward.
The return from injury of strikers Felipe Mora and Jaroslaw Niezgoda, midfielder Eryk Williamson and left back Claudio Bravo should provide the influx of talent better than most midseason acquisitions might have provided. All are proven players who have had success here.
Savarese certainly perks up when discussing the impact players returning from injury — who were in training during the extended break — can have.
"That's exciting for us, because we struggled through injuries and now that we have all these guys coming back in, the competition (for playing time) is going to be better, and I think the quality will improve," Savarese said.
Barring a significant trade or roster move, which seems unlikely, Portland's improvement over the second half of the season will depend upon the health of Sebastian Blanco. If he can be one of the top attacking players in the league, Portland can again be a threat to any opponent. Additionally, a breakout performance from younger players — Williamson? Santiago Moreno? Marin Loria? Cristhian Paredes? — is needed for this club to significantly raise its chances for big success.
Long term, Portland needs to find its next dynamic playmaking attacker. Portland hasn't had a true playmaking No. 10 since 2019, when Diego Valeri started 29 matches and contributed eight goals and 16 assists. Solving that position seems like an offseason priority. For 2022, the hope is that Yimmi Chara doesn't have to play all over the field and that the Timbers can have lineup continuity and the connectivity that allows.
The expectation should be that attacking players will account for a higher percentage of goals. Through 16 matches, defender Bill Tuiloma leads the Timbers with five goals. If Portland's attack was producing, too, Tuiloma's contribution from set pieces would be a nice bonus, rather than a salvation.
The Timbers early struggles probably should have been anticipated. They had barely six weeks between the crushing loss in the MLS Cup Final and starting training camp ahead of the 2022 slog, er season. Perhaps that short break was a factor in some of the injuries. The way the MLS Cup Final went down left a lasting emotional bruise, no doubt.
Savarese acknowledges those challenges, but emphatically refuses to use them to explain the subpar results so far in 2022.
"If that's the case, then we have to be stronger mentally. We can't be just a team that (falters) because we barely lost the final. We have to be mentally strong, and we have to be a team that can handle the situation. I wouldn't attribute this way we've been playing lately to that situation."
Savarese said his review of the season showed him a team that played with a lot of energy and purpose for the first few games, but that performance dropped off as confidence declined in more recent matches.
"I think we started to go a little bit away from our core and the things that we always did very well," Savarese said. "And, even though we were still competitive and we still are in games, I think that oppositions are able to find goals and manage games with a minimum (effort)."
History tells us to expect the Timbers to heat up in the second half of 2022. But, given recent evidence, a healthy dose of skepticism is understandable.
Tobin Heath now a rival
The news that Tobin Heath is now playing for the OL Reign certainly stings for fans of the Portland Thorns. During her seven seasons in Portland, Heath was more than her 12 goals and 24 assists. Having one of the most creative and popular players in the world on the left wing helped the Thorns win two championships, play in four title games and become one of the more recognized women's soccer clubs in the world.
When, in 2017, Heath took on a role with the Thorns Academy youth program, she seemed destined to be a Thorn for life. Alas, the business of soccer didn't allow that. Racing Louisville surprised when it selected Heath in the NWSL expansion draft. At the time, rules restricted to two the number of U.S. Women's National Team players a team could protect, and the Thorns protected Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn. Dunn is married to Thorns head trainer Pierre Soubrier. Their first child, son Marcel was born May 20.
Heath never played for Louisville. She returns to the NWSL after three seasons in England and joins fellow UNWNT veteran Megan Rapinoe in Seattle.
Speaking of national teams, the Thorns (as usual) will be well represented during the current international window and upcoming World Cup and Olympics qualifying matches.
Sam Coffey, Sophia Smith and Becky Sauerbrunn are on the 26-player roster for USWNT friendlies against Colombia on June 25 and June 28. Smith and Sauerbrunn are on the 23-player roster for the July 4-11 Concacaf W Championship, which serves as qualifying for the 2023 Women's World Cup and 2024 Olympics.
Midfielder Olivia Moultrie will head to France with the U.S. U-20 team for the Sud Ladies Cup tournament that begins June 24. Midfielder Hina Sugita joins the Japan national team for matches June 24 against Serbia and June 27 against Finland.
Thorns defender Natalia Kuikka will spend July with Finland's national team for the UEFA Women's Euro tournament.
Christine Sinclair and Janine Beckie figure to be with Canada for the Concacaf Women's Championship and for a June 26 friendly against South Korea.
Portland next plays July 1 at Angel City. Of the coming absences, Thorns coach Rhian Wilkinson said:
"I do think it's an incredible opportunity for players to prove themselves, to get on the field and to do what they love doing."
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