MLS Breakdown: Gastón Fernández provides options in Portland

Portland forward Gastón Fernández has scored twice in two appearances to offer tangible evidence of his influence.

Steve Dykes

PORTLAND, Ore.

Gastón Fernández isn’t the sort of player neatly assigned to one spot. He moves too frequently and presents too many problems to stay in one defined area for any length of time.

His new home in Portland suits him nicely. Timbers coach Caleb Porter wants his attacking players to interchange often and look for the ball in difficult areas. Those principles confuse opposing defenses and foster tidy work in possession.

Fernández – as evidenced by his influence over the first two matches – adjusted quickly to the demands imposed in the Timbers’ setup. His nominal home base still remains in some flux, though.

Porter has used him on the left, through the middle and at the tip of the midfield three at different points depending on the demands of the game and the needs of the team. The heat maps from the first two matches reflect Fernández’s willingness to meander into different areas to find the ball and link the play, but his tendency to operate on the left supplies a nice balance to Diego Valeri’s usual drifting to the right.

 “Anywhere you use him, he’s going to pop up, he’s going to read defenses and find the gaps and seams,” Porter said after the 1-1 draw with Chicago on Sunday. “He gets in those – what I call – hard spots in between the layers and the seams. He knows how to operate in there. He has great pictures in terms of how he sees the game. But when he gets closer to goal, he can also score goals.”

Gastón Fernández’s tendency to operate on the left provides good balance with Timbers playmaker Diego Valeri usually functioning on the right side.

The last trait could prove most crucial considering the lingering concerns about the Timbers’ options at the number nine spot. This group still doesn’t boast a reliable central figure up front, the traditionally direct element usually deployed to offer a different look when the careful buildup play fails the yield the intended dividends.

Fernández can fill that role in a fairly unique way if Maximiliano Urruti continues to struggle and Frédéric Piquionne remains a bench option first and foremost. As Porter noted, his clever runs allow him to pose more of an aerial threat than his modest stature would suggest. His predatory instincts prompted those two simple finishes over the past two weeks to snatch a pair of points.

In order for the Timbers to hit their expected heights, they will need someone to provide the finishing touch to all of that intricate work in the buildup. Fernández’s importance in chance creation may prompt Porter to use him on the left or in a more withdrawn role more often than not, but his ruthlessness in front of goal offers another option as the Timbers attempt to translate possession into production.

“It’s early,” Portland midfielder Will Johnson said. “We’re working on a lot of different things, trying to get everything right. Guys are finding their holes between the lines, finding their spots where they can pick up the ball. There are a lot of different things going on with the new group. It’s not perfect yet. It’s on us to get it right quickly.”

Five Points – Week 2

1. Connection issues in those Cascadia back fours: Portland coach Caleb Porter explained how he spent a few moments at halftime talking with his back four about closing down the spaces across the back four. Porter noted his central defenders and his fullbacks needed to pinch inside to choke off the space ceded to Alex and Quincy Amarikwa (the bright forward exploited one of those gaps to draw the first-half penalty award from Norberto Paparatto) during the opening stanza. The tweaks choked off the space during the second half as the home side eventually grasped control of the game.

Seattle faced a similar issue in the early stages of the 2-1 defeat to Toronto FC on Saturday. Chad Marshall and Djimi Traore found themselves drifting too far apart in the middle of the rearguard in the early stages of that defeat. Jonathan Osorio punished the maneuvers by threading Jermain Defoe through that space to claim the opener. By the time those issues dissipated, the Reds were two goals to the good and on their way to collecting the points.

2. Toronto FC keeps its opening day victory in perspective: Several TFC folks – from coach Ryan Nelsen through the squad – harped on the need for further improvement in the wake of the triumph in Seattle. It is a good message for the Reds to adopt: this team isn’t the finished product yet. If TFC can wring out results along the way, then this side could prove all the more dangerous when it presumably finds its footing later in the season.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that, as the season goes on, we’ll continue to improve, our football will be good and we’ll play well,” TFC midfielder Michael Bradley said. “Tonight was different. Tonight was about the spirit and the mentality to do whatever it took to get three points. That’s a big step along the way.”

Colorado coach Pablo Mastroeni claimed a point in his first match in charge of the Rapids.

3. Pablo Mastroeni takes his successful bow in New York: Colorado earned a 1-1 draw at New York to start the Mastroeni era. The first steps involved keeping some of the old traits (78 percent passing accuracy, several extended spells in possession) and revising some of the previous operating principles (Marvell Wynne in the middle, Shane O’Neill shunted to right back, Dillon Serna in the starting XI for the first time).

“It was good,” Mastroeni told reporters after the match. “I think the guys played well. I think they were organized and I think that six weeks of preseason was validated with a good point here on the road.”

4. Midfield concerns prompt shape adjustment in New England: Revolution coach Jay Heaps addressed the issues exposed in the defeat in Houston and the problems posed by Philadelphia’s midfield by introducing Andy Dorman as a second holding player at PPL Park. The adjustment nominally provided the Revs with a more conservative three-versus-three in the middle of the park, but they were overrun often in the first half nevertheless. Heaps cut bait at the interval and switched to a more direct 4-4-2 setup with Jerry Bengtson inserted into the fray to present more of a direct, streamlined threat. The visitors presented more danger after that point, but the final result (1-0 to the Union) and the lingering questions about José Gonçalves (omitted from the squad through Heaps’ decision, not injury) ensure the Revs have some concerns to redress before Vancouver visits on Saturday.

5. Goonie Magic lifts Earthquakes again: San Jose stung Real Salt Lake with a pair of late Victor Bernárdez strikes to snatch a 3-3 draw at Buck Shaw Stadium on Saturday night. It marked the second late show inside a week for a side accustomed to belated heroics.

“That’s kind of standard stuff around here, isn’t it,” Earthquakes boss Mark Watson told reporters after the latest comeback. “Once again, we had a great start. It was disappointing to see the game seemingly slip away from us. We got a bit sloppy and dug ourselves a big hole, but once again, our guys found a way to push to the end and get a point out of the game.”