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Why has the Timbers’ defense been so bad and what can Giovanni Savarese do about it?

Apr 13, 2019; Frisco, TX, USA; Portland Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala (33) and FC Dallas midfielder Michael Barrios (21) fight for the ball during the first half at Toyota Stadium. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Fans of the Portland Timbers have the right to be enraged.

In a hard-fought loss to FC Dallas on Saturday, the Timbers sat excruciatingly close to equalizing after rallying late and ending the worst downward spiral the club has ever seen. But referee Marcos de Oliveira waved off not one, but two PK-worthy fouls in the box – a push into Jeremy Ebobisse’s back and a handball from Dallas defender Ryan Hollingshead.

But the end result, a depressing 2-1 loss, can’t be blamed entirely on the refereeing. Some of the anger from the RCTID faithful should be directed at the officiating, but a whole bunch needs to be directed at the Timbers, who played poorly for roughly 75 minutes before a late surge.

There is no single deficiency that has led the Timbers to losing five games straight, a dubious club record. They have problems everywhere – the forwards aren’t creating enough goals, the midfield can’t win the ball or hold onto it, and the defense can’t stop conceding.

After the loss in Dallas, though, it’s worth looking more closely at the defense. The 2-1 scoreline may be somewhat marred by the lack of deserved PK calls for the Timbers, but in another sense it flatters the Timbers. Dallas could’ve easily scored another two or three had they finished the open chances gifted by the Timbers backline.

Jesus Ferreira’s goal was a slightly fluky one, but consider how FC Dallas ran straight through the Timbers’ defense in the 27th minute, forcing Jeff Attinella to make a lunging reaction save. Or how three minutes later, Pablo Aranguiz was left free to run into the box and put a one-time shot from the penalty spot over the bar. And so on. Those moments happened over and over, with Ferreira denied by the post on one and Attinella saving four.

The Timbers defense just hasn’t looked good this season compared to last year, despite having many of the same players – and there’s no simple or obvious explanation.

The loss of Liam Ridgewell has obviously hurt the defense, and there’s no arguing otherwise. Over the five years Ridgewell played in Portland, the team conceded about half a goal less per game when he played compared to when he didn’t. And it wasn’t simply that he was a good defender – it was his organization, communication and distribution that made everyone around him better.

But losing a single defender can’t obliterate a team’s ability to defend – Ridgewell’s loss alone can’t possibly be the explanation. So what is it?

There could be a proliferation of mental lapses. It’s easy to point to individual mistakes as the recurring problem, and there’s some truth to that. At halftime of Saturday’s loss, coach Giovanni Savarese lamented the sloppiness on the ball and how the team struggled to defend against FC Dallas’ counterattacks. But those mistakes have been remarkably consistent, no matter who is in the lineup.

So then the question has to shift from, “Are individual Timbers playing poorly?” to “Is this just the level of quality on the roster?” The fact is, the Timbers didn’t make many changes to the 2018 roster and seem to have downgraded in more positions than they upgraded.

The one improvement has been at right back, where Jorge Moreira has been a more dangerous attacking option. But the other offseason acquisitions haven’t made the desired impact. Centerback Claude Dielna was apparently not playing with the New England Revolution last year for a reason. Goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic arrived in Portland injured. And neither of the T2 players signed to the first team – Marvin Loria and Renzo Zambrano – have played a minute yet.

In a nutshell, an aging Timbers roster got a year older, with Diego Valeri and Diego Chara approaching 33, but the roster overall didn’t get any better. The Timbers have been vocal about their desire to sign a Designated Player attacker – likely a striker or a right winger to carry some of the goal-scoring load and neutralize the cost of defensive lapses – but that hasn’t happened yet.

From the Timbers’ perspective, this roster is built on the core that carried the team to the MLS Cup – it’s easy to see why standing pat may have been considered a viable option. But there was evidence over the course of last season that the Timbers had actually outplayed their level in an unsustainable fashion and were due to regress to the mean. Now, it appears that’s happening, and it’s been expedited by the loss of Ridgewell without adequate replacements.

When Savarese was asked directly about whether he thought he has the personnel to compete this year, he deflected the question, but from the outside there are reasons to be concerned. It hasn’t been one or two players having bad games – it’s been most of them throughout the lineup, and it’s been for several games.

So what can Savarese do about it? He can’t rebuild the Timbers’ roster six weeks into the season, but he can make some tactical shifts.

Moving to the 5-3-2 against the LA Galaxy and FC Dallas was an obvious improvement from the 4-2-3-1. The Timbers need the extra numbers in the midfield and in defense that the 5-3-2 provides, and whenever they’ve trotted out their usual 4-2-3-1, which they rode to MLS Cup last year, they’ve been overrun. They’ve still lost with the 5-3-2, but they’ve kept games much closer.

But the 5-3-2 still hasn’t looked quite right.

Because the system uses wingbacks, two of the defenders in that line of five are constantly pushing up the flanks, leaving three centerbacks behind. On top of that, Larrys Mabiala, a centerback, was also apparently tasked with getting forward in attacking phases of the game in Dallas. But when it was time to track back and defend against a counter, the back five struggled badly to get into place and left spaces all over the field. FC Dallas could have easily scored more if they finished their chances better, and those chances generally came from the Timbers backline scrambling.

Without the speed on the roster to play with wingbacks or to ask a centerback like Mabiala to push up, Savarese may want to return to the so-called Christmas tree formation – the 4-3-2-1 that the Timbers used to turn their fortunes around last season. It will clog up the midfield, where many of the Timbers’ problems truly start, but it would keep things simpler and tighter in the back. The sit-and-bunker approach isn’t pretty, but we know from last year that it’s effective.

After the Timbers narrowed their deficit to one goal in Dallas, they switched from the 5-3-2 to a 4-2-3-1 with a Diego Valeri at the top of a diamond midfield and pushed for an equalizer. It certainly looked better as the Timbers became much more dangerous. But it’s important to keep game states in mind – the Timbers, already down, had nothing to lose by throwing numbers forward against a Dallas team that seemed to take their foot off the gas after going up 2-0. There’s no reason to deduce that the Timbers should expect that tactical system to work over 90 minutes.

If there’s one thing we know about Savarese, it’s that he is tactically flexible and willing to abandon his ideals in the name of practicality. Last season, he threw the team out in a slew of formations week to week as he looked for ways to throw off opponents and keep superior attacking teams at bay. He needs to do that again, and it may mean the Timbers sit deep and hope that pacey players like Sebastian Blanco, Diego Chara and Jeremy Ebobisse only create goals on the counter.

After five straight losses and sitting dead last in the league standings, something needs to change and anything is better than another loss.

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