For the first time since their inaugural season seven years ago, the Portland Timbers have lost their MLS opener.
The team's streak of success on opening nights came to an end on Sunday at the StubHub Center in Carson, where the Timbers dropped Giovani Savarese's first game in charge 2-1 to a revamped LA Galaxy.
LA's goals came in the space of just three minutes midway through the first half, but this was a hour-and-a-half slog of a curtain-raiser from a team that has plenty of work to do under its new coach in the coming weeks.
It wasn't a spiritless or abject performance, but it was a rather deflating one. If the Timbers are to return to the top of the Western Conference, they'll need to sharpen soon.
Heading into the game, there were ominous signs for Savarese — namely the absence of Diego Chara, still working his way back to full fitness after breaking his foot at the end of last season, without whom the Timbers had not won in some fourteen matches spanning two-plus years.
No matter who the coach is, who the opponent is, or where the game is, Chara is paramount. That said, the Timbers problems in this game were extensive and apparent from the first minute onward.
Emanuel Boateng is one of the few wingers in the league who is faster straight up than Alvas Powell, and within about ten minutes, he'd thrown Powell completely off of his game.
Boateng tore up the right side of the Timbers' defense all night and should have scored twice, while Powell — in an unwelcomely familiar sight from last season was yanked for Zarek Valentin after just 61 minutes. His defense was bad, his passing was bad, and his focus wasn't there either.
Elsewhere in the Timbers' defense, things weren't much better. It's hard to overstate just how far off the pace the Timbers' back six was. Liam Ridgewell somewhat excepted, everyone struggled.
Powell got the quick hook, but Larrys Mabiala couldn't handle Ola Kamara, Marco Farfan couldn't handle Romain Alessandrini, and the defensive midfielders couldn't find any sort of rhythm. David Guzman and Cristhian Parades combined for just one successful tackle. One.
That was Chara's absence speaking loudly, and a very strong Galaxy front six playing some decent week one soccer. But the Timbers didn't manage the circumstances or the matchup particularly well.
Another part of the problem was Savarese's high press — which the Timbers only successfully executed for about five minutes in the first half and a handful more in the second — leaving all kinds of space behind an already short-for-speed defense.
The Galaxy didn't string many passes together, but they didn't need to. They were getting in behind, or, later in the game, running up the gut of the Timbers' defense, at will.
Beyond any individual struggles, that was the story of the evening: the tactics, the personnel, and the timing of it all just didn't quite click.
That was also true offensively, where the Timbers struggled mightily to get their key players the ball in dangerous areas. Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Fanendo Adi saw very, very little of the game in the first half, while Guzman and Paredes both struggled to distribute cleanly.
Blanco improved and got his goal after switching sides with Polo, but the Timbers' attack remained awfully disjointed. Adi was flaring out to the touchline trying to find the game, while Valeri was coming back towards the center circle trying to do the same.
Back to front, this looked very much like a team playing their first game of a new season under a new coach. Together, they haven't quite figured things out.
The Timbers' best chance of the game fell to Andy Polo fairly early on, but the Peruvian's shot was turned away by David Bingham.
About ten minutes later, the Galaxy would open the scoring on a play that started with Boateng skipping by Powell to the byline and sending a low cross towards the goalmouth that Ridgewell cut out only to see Jonathan dos Santos fire the recycle to the back post area, Rolf Feltscher head it across, and Ola Kamara react first to bundle it in.
Two minutes after that, the Galaxy would double their lead. Kamara set up Alessandrini whose shot was blocked into the air by Ridgewell — but Kamara knocked it down, Ridgewell took a loose touch, a falling Alessandrini pounced on it, fired the ball off the post, sprung to his feet, and slotted home the rebound.
Blanco scored a good goal in the second half, and the Timbers did improve a measure, but they never came all that close to finding the second goal.
Savarese, to his credit, remained upbeat after the final whistle. He praised his team's energy and said he saw things to build on. As he certainly knows, getting Chara back — whether it's next week or in three weeks time in Frisco — is going to make life exponentially easier in every phase of the game.
But while Chara can erase a number of problems on his own, the feeling out process with Savarese is going to take some time. He needs to figure out who he can trust in his team, and how it has to play to be successful. The formation, at this point, is an open question.
Meanwhile, the early returns on the revamped Galaxy are quite good. Kamara is going to be a nightmare to have in the Western Conference, and the younger dos Santos appears to have awaken after spending much of last year on autopilot.
Feltscher is a target at right back, and the Timbers had their best looks going right at him, but this LA team is going to be back in the playoffs. Plenty of teams will lose in Carson this year.
Portland, it might be added, hadn't lost in Carson in three years before Sunday night. This, though, is a new era — one that is still waiting for its statement of intent.