Diego Valeri (at training): “After that we were like 14, 15 games, unbeaten, which is weird because probably during that I don’t know if we deserved to be unbeaten in that amount of games (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
ATLANTA — Way back at the cusp of the Major League Soccer season, Giovanni Savarese and his Portland Timbers were heading in the wrong direction — literally and figuratively.
Hours prior to the Red Bulls’ home opener March 10, the Timbers’ team bus was traveling the wrong way, away from Red Bull Arena, instead of toward it, on the New Jersey Turnpike.
On Thursday, Savarese was reminded of his team’s misadventure prior to the Timbers’ match against the Red Bulls.
“You remember well,” Savarese said with a laugh during a press conference at the Atlanta United training facility. “Officer Murphy. The officer goes the wrong way.”
The Timbers arrived at RBA late, but in plenty of time for the match, although the way they played they might have wanted to have kept on driving back home to Portland. Using a lineup dominated by younger reserve players due to their participation in the Concacaf Champions League, the Red Bulls embarrassed Portland with a stunning 4-0 triumph.
“I’m pretty sure everything has to be planned in a better way but I think that the game was able to teach us some things and made us think a little bit more that at that point we probably had to change a few things and we took a different route to be able to get to where we want to be now,” Savarese said.
The loss turned into a metaphor for the Timbers during the early stages of the season. Portland stumbled to a 0-3-2 mark in its opening five matches, giving great concern to a team that had enjoyed nothing but success over the past few years. Remember, the Timbers danced around with the Philip F. Anschutz trophy as league champions only three years ago.
They will try to win the MLS Cup again Saturday night against Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“Credit to the players because right after that match, right after we played Dallas there was already a feeling from that point already that a win would be coming soon,” Savarese said. “I think sometimes those games that are the difficult games that teach you the most and make the group even more strong. I think that game was important for us at the beginning of the season.”
Portland dropped its season opener at the LA Galaxy March 4, 2-1. Add a 1-1 draw at FC Dallas, a 2-2 tie at the Chicago Fire and a 3-2 loss to Orlando City SC, there was plenty to be concerned about. The Timbers finally won their first game, a 3-2 result over Minnesota United at home, sparking a six-game winning streak.
“It was a difficult beginning for us because we started five games away and against very good teams,” said midfielder Andres Flores, who played under Savarese for three seasons on the Cosmos. “It was very difficult. We didn’t get enough points, we didn’t get the results that we wanted. I think it was an important moment for us, too. The coaching staff had to make some changes in the way we were working. After that, everything settled down and everything started to work out. It was difficult, but at the same time it was important because it’s just the beginning of the season. It helped us put the right things together and start working good.”
Standout midfielder Diego Valeri remembered that miserable start, which could have derailed the season.
“As Gio says, we always learn,” he said. “Probably the feeling is different when you lose a game, right? Obviously you have to scout every game a different way. If you say five games without a win, it’s not precise. After the Dallas game, the team started to feel in a very different way. You could see that we deserved the wins from the third to the fifth game. We tried to be united, believing that the results would come. We scout everything besides the result. We had a couple of conversations with Gio and they say, good things will come. Believe me. you can’t see that we are united. The spirit is the same. We are improving every game. Against Orlando we lost in the final three minutes. Besides the result, you could see a strong team, that it was improving every game.
“Then after that we were like 14, 15 games, unbeaten, which is weird because probably during that I don’t know if we deserved to be unbeaten in that amount of games. But it was talking a lot about the team.”
The Timbers went through their share of ups and downs, finishing in fifth place in the Western Conference with a 15-10-9. Despite having home-field disadvantage during the playoffs, underdog Portland knocked off favored FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders FC and Sporting Kansas City to reach MLS Cup.
Looking back at March 10, give Savarese some credit for refusing to use the late arrival as an excuse.
“For me it was an embarrassing match because at a point, we had the game in control,” he said after the match. “I think we could have won this match if we wanted to, and we allowed them to be able to get the better of it because they wanted it more. And when a team steps on the field wanting the game more, they deserve to win. For me, that was the key of the match.
“As soon as they scored the second goal, we give up, and that’s one thing we need to improve. We have to continue to work and if we want to be the type of team that wants to win a championship, we need to do a lot more work but most of all, we have to have more attitude.”
Little doubt the Timbers have more attitude. They find themselves on the verge of winning championship. By late Saturday night they and the rest of the soccer world will know whether they had the right attitude in MLS Cup.