The Portland Timbers' season-opening loss to the LA Galaxy a week ago wasn't pretty, but was excusable: new coach, new system, strong opponent, etc.
The absolute hairball they coughed up in Harrison against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday night? It was a world apart.
The Timbers were drubbed 4-0 by a Red Bulls team that rested eight starters in advance of a Tuesday night Concacaf Champions League tie and counted among its key contributors an academy player who was signed to a first team contract on Friday and a seventeen-year-old making his MLS debut.
The result was a credit to the Red Bulls and their brilliant coach Jesse Marsch, but it was also a damning indicator of where the Timbers are two weeks into the Giovani Savarese era: bottom of the Western Conference, and deservedly so.
Savarese, to put it bluntly, doesn't have a clue right now. That came through in his team selection, and it came through as the game slipped further and further out of reach.
The team selection, firstly, was a mess. Perhaps sending a message, perhaps feeling around in the dark for a winning formula, Savarese dropped Fanendo Adi and, even less defensibly, inserted Lawrence Olum into lineup in central midfield.
Olum's partnership with David Guzman was a dumpster fire in preseason, which was why it made sense that Savarese opted to play Cristhian Paredes in the season opener. That logic, however, apparently expired last week.
With Olum back alongside Guzman in the lineup, the Timbers were breathtakingly easy to play through. The Red Bulls gobbled up space in the center of the field, and — though they completed just over 60 percent of their passes in the final third — were able to fire off 20 shots and score four times.
What was truly remarkable, however, is that Olum stayed on the field for 84 minutes. Despite the fact that the Timbers were getting crushed up the middle, despite the fact that they were chasing a goal, then two, then three, Olum remained in the game until it was long over. Paredes, who is 19 and could at least use the minutes, got barely enough time to break a sweat.
This isn't to single out Olum. His selection was more troubling than anything he did — or, more pointedly, didn't — do on the field. Meanwhile, Guzman again looked woefully incapable of handling a box-to-box role while center backs Larrys Mabiala and Liam Ridgewell both had miserable outings.
The pair were cleaned out in quick succession on the Red Bulls' opening goal, reacting late and later to a sharp one-two between Derrick Etienne and Carlos Rivas in zone fourteen, and watching as Rivas slipped the ball Kaku who slid it across to set up a tap-in for the rookie Ben Mines.
The Timbers came into the game slightly at the end of the first half, and carved out their best chance fifteen minutes after the restart when Dairon Asprilla's towering header was clawed out of the corner by Luis Robles.
It was at that point that Marsch, with a bench full of starters, decided to clamp down. Bradley Wright-Phillips and Tyler Adams came into the game, and ten minutes later, Wright-Phillips would find the back of the net off of a flicked-on corner ten minutes after that to put the game away.
Savarese's substitutions, on the other hand, were confounding. The first guy off the bench with the Timbers 1-0 down was Victor Arboleda, while Adi didn't get into the game until there were just more than fifteen minutes to go. In the intervening fifteen minutes, Asprilla was playing forward. Why? Who knows.
In comparison to the Red Bulls, who rotated nine players and didn't miss a beat from their fabulous 2-0 win in Tijuana on Tuesday night, the Timbers looked like a circus. Savarese has now used seventeen players in the club's first two games, and has not gotten any closer to finding a winning formula.
One of the problems for the new coach is that almost no one has played well enough to lock down their position — except perhaps Diego Chara, who the Timbers are making an MVP case for right now.
Center back, for instance, is a glaring problem. All of the sudden, Mabiala can't keep up with anyone. He's been exposed in open space more times in the first two games of this season than he was in all thirteen games he played last season.
Combined, the Timbers' central defenders made just one successful tackle while Red Bulls left winger Vincent Bezecourt made five. New York had a 26-11 advantage in tackling overall, and those numbers tell a couple of stories.
One is that the Timbers were out-fought. Savarese said that his team "gave up" after Wright-Phillips' goal with a half hour to play, and he was right. That's how Rivas, perhaps the worst finisher in the league, scored his first professional brace in the final ten minutes.
Where Savarese was not right, however, was in his assertion that the Timbers could have won the game — a game that they lost by four goals — " if [they] wanted to."
Hardly. Savarese is smarter than that, and that's the other story: in stark contrast to Marsch's expertly-drilled Red Bulls, the Timbers are in no way suited to play in a pressing system. They don't have the legs.
Mabiala and Ridgewell, for instance, simply do not have the speed to play in anything but a low block. They didn't play well on Saturday night, and they didn't play well last weekend either, and they will continue to play poorly if they are asked to play a high line. That's not a battle Savarese is going to win. Either he is going to adapt, or he's going to find new players. Caleb Porter adapted, and frequently.
Savarese, hopefully, will figure it out. He'll figure out who his best guys are, and he'll put them in positions to win. A 4-0 loss in his New York homecoming certainly wasn't what he had in mind, and he's got two weeks before the Timbers play next in Dallas to reset and get his team refocused.
The gulf between the Timbers and the Red Bulls' second string was both alarming and a far cry from last year, when this same Portland team beat a similarly weakened New York team 2-0 at Providence Park in a fabulous game. Right now, that night, that team, feels very far away.