Editorial (March 19, 2019) — The Portland Timbers put on a dismal performance in Sunday’s 3-0 loss to expansion club FC Cincinnati. There were bright spots, but overall this side could not compete with the emotions of FCC’s MLS home opener.
Three games in, we now ask the question whether the Timbers should shift their focus on getting center back reinforcements.
What Sunday’s Loss Taught Us
FC Cincinnati came out hard and fast.
Their 4-4-2 starting line-up quickly became more of a 4-2-4 not only in attack but also while defending. Outside midfielders Alan Cruz and Roland Lamah pressed Portland fullbacks Jorge Villafaña and Zarek Valentin. This caused panic in the Timbers backline who would, in response, send long balls to Lucas Melano up top. These were easily dealt with and FC Cincinnati could restart with Leonardo Bertone in the midfield.
Portland found a way to deal with Cincinnati’s press. After conceding on a free kick, Portland shifted from a 4-2-3-1 to an almost 4-1-4-1. They were able to put Bertone under more pressure and keep Ulloa honest with his forward movements after pushing Cristhian Paredes in a more advanced position.
This switch gave Portland the upper half for a solid amount of the rest of the first half. If it weren’t for a pair of great saves from Cincinnati goalkeeper Spencer Richey, Portland would have gone into the half tied at 1-1.
The second half is where Cincinnati ran away with the match. This wasn’t necessarily because of their creativity and defensive genius. However, it was due to Portland’s inability to create anything going forward through Melano and their lack of defensive stability. All three of Cincinnati’s goals were preventable by better tracking of runners and generally being aware enough to know your defensive positioning.
Everyone thought the Timbers’ biggest worry this offseason was getting a Designated Player striker. However, it seems they now have to focus their attention to their back line.
What Portland Needs
The first MLS transfer window, which opened Feb. 13, closes on May 7. While a big money signing is unlikely until the second window due to player availability and transfer rules of other leagues, the Timbers can and should look for someone to help tighten up their back line after conceding 10 goals in the first three matches.
Fans should expect to see Jorge Moreira come in at right-back sooner rather than later. Depending on how his recovery has gone, this should be a large step up from Valentin. Villafaña has probably been the best Timber along the backline. What the Timbers need is a solid veteran presence at center back. That’s a presence they never replaced after Liam Ridgewell left.
Plus, it is no secret Larrys Mabiala, Julio Cascante and Claude Dielna have not played well early in 2019.
The Portland Timbers and Liam Ridgewell have mutually agreed to part ways.
— Portland Timbers (@TimbersFC) January 10, 2019
Who Can They Go After?
Because Portland traded their ninth international roster spot to D.C. United, the Timbers need to find a domestic player. The best way to find a cheap domestic player is the free agent market.
Sean Franklin: Franklin last played for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2018. Though he typically plays right back, the 33-year-old has spent time playing at center back. In his time in MLS, he has won two MLS Cups and two Supporters’ Shield titles. He could provide the veteran defensive leadership needed to steer the ship.
Chris Schuler: Schuler last played for Orlando City in 2018. The center back is not someone who Portland shouldn’t plan on being a long term solution. However, he could help be the band-aid that brings them through this long series of road games and to the secondary transfer window.
Sheanon Williams: Williams last played for the LA Galaxy. Similarly to Franklin, Williams usually plays as a right back but has spent time at center back as well. The 29-year-old played well for the Whitecaps in 2017 but struggled after signing with the Galaxy in June of 2018.
"We need to find our strength and belief in the group."
— Portland Timbers (@TimbersFC) March 18, 2019
These three players can help steady Portland defensively. However, it is also important not to jump to quick remedies for what could be a long term problem.
It will be wise for Giovanni Savarese and co. to really look at all their options, including some that could come from Timbers 2 in USL Championship.