Struggling Portland Timbers trying to find its identity against reborn FC Dallas
It's early, or so goes the refrain.
"It's early," said FC Dallas coach Oscar Pareja, accurately, when asked to describe his team's performance just two games into Major League Soccer's 34-match regular season. "The players are still molding to the structure of the team."
"It's early," explained new Portland Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese, barely a blip when it comes to his vision for the long-term future of the club.
It would indeed be rash to make any sweeping conclusions based on the opening few weekends of play -- positive or negative -- especially given MLS' extremely forgiving playoff structure.
It is not too early, however, to begin questioning assumptions that were widely held by league observers at the outset of this campaign. Both Dallas and Portland already have broken from their respective preconceived narratives ahead of this Saturday's matchup at Toyota Stadium.
The Pareja era at FCD, barring some major changes, was supposed to have flamed out. The U.S. Open Cup and Supporters' Shield winner in 2016, Dallas was riding high in first place in the West late last July before completely falling off. Amid rumors of locker room discord, it won just two of its final 15 games, went winless in 10 during a crucial stretch and somehow managed to miss the postseason altogether.
Instead of taking the hint and blowing up the roster, however, Pareja and technical director Fernando Clavijo have mostly tinkered around the edges. Some veterans were jettisoned elsewhere (Walter Zimmerman and Atiba Harris), but the core remained mostly intact. And at least throughout last Sunday's 3-0 romp over visiting Seattle, with Mauro Diaz dancing around opponents in the midfield, the team looks to have regained some of its previous pep so far in 2018.
"We cannot just get crazy and think we were not doing the right things here," Pareja told ESPN FC in a phone interview this week. "We have proved already in the four years of this project that things were working. Some results are better than others, but for us it was important to continue with the ideas of what we were doing here.
"We're convinced about what we do. That's the analysis that we made. We don't want to be content with [what we've accomplished], but we know ourselves pretty well."
Portland, meanwhile, went in the polar opposite direction. Dallas cratered and stood pat; the Timbers finished in first place in the Western Conference and experienced their most tumultuous offseason in years. Gone is coach Caleb Porter, who after five mostly successful seasons made the shocking decision to part ways. In is Savarese, having established himself as one of the hottest coaching prospects in the country during his tenure with the NASL's New York Cosmos.
There were some concerns -- the advancing age of their most important players, Savarese's inexperience at this level, the exit of midfield creator Darlington Nagbe, the five straight road games to start out while Providence Park is being renovated -- but more optimism. A new coach might be exactly what's needed to freshen up a product that had started to feel stale, so the thinking went. And hey, somebody has to win the West. Half of the quartet of panelists on this website (including yours truly) tabbed the Timbers as the Western Conference rep in MLS Cup during the season preview.
Yet Portland has been beaten, badly, in each of its first two matches and faces another daunting challenge this weekend in Frisco.
"In this transition, we have to take one step at a time," Savarese said, adding that even in defeat he's spotted a few flashes of the team he wants to become. "I do believe that we have the players to at some point transition into the identity we want for this team.
"Even if we had won, or tied, these games, we still have to take this transition step by step."
Don't panic, in other words. It's only March. That's kind of the point, though: It's only March, and the content machine requires something to talk about.
It's too early for hot takes and overreactions, but there still are helpful hints to be gleaned from games like this. And none this weekend will be more intriguing than the matchup pitting the team trying to forge a new identity versus another searching for one most thought it'd lost for good.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.