CAN TIMBERS TURN GOOD TO GREAT?
Timbers fans, send those thank-you notes to Clint Dempsey.
Because as painful as it was to see their most disliked opponent drive home that game-tying header in extra time on Sunday at Providence Park, it needed to happen.
Ultimately, Dempsey's goal meant the Seattle Sounders and Portland played to a 2-2 draw. For what it's worth in June, the Timbers are tied for second place in the MLS Western Conference. Seattle is still out of playoff position.
Dempsey's goal meant the Timbers couldn't get away with a dismal second-half performance, that the club's lack of composure and killer instinct was laid bare as a 10-man Seattle side dictated the game to a Portland team that played not to lose when it should have been delivering a dagger or two to its biggest rival.
Had the Timbers escaped with the win, the story lines would focus on (correctly) the gutty play of Amobi Okugo and Lawrence Olum in the middle of the defense. It would have sung the praises of Dairon Asprilla, whose cross led to the first Portland goal and whose smashing header gave the home team the 2-1 lead. It would have raved about Fanendo Adi's club-record 50th career goal.
If the Timbers had won that match, they would be alone in second place and Saturday's trip to Kansas City would've been billed as a showdown for Western Conference supremacy.
But that scenario — at least publicly — would have disguised some glaring problems with this Timbers outfit.
To review: Over the eight days that ended with that gut-punch Sunday draw, the Timbers lost consecutive games to the two worst teams in the conference, Colorado and Minnesota United.
Such things happen in soccer, especially in MLS. Trouble is, the Timbers have lost focus and desire for significant stretches of games.
Jobs are on the line at this point. Or at least it felt that way after Sunday's match. Not because a great player scored the tying goal in stoppage time. But because the Timbers were so anemic at a time when their fans were thirsting for and the match called for a clinching third goal.
On Sunday, Dominic Kinnear, one of the winningest coaches in MLS history, was fired by San Jose. That is not to suggest the same should happen to Caleb Porter. Far from it.
But it is a reminder that sports is a results-based business. This year's Timbers have looked dominant at times — including for much of a May match at Seattle tht they lost 1-0. Most concerning, though, is how emotionally unpredictable they are. The feeling in the second half on Sunday was they were hanging on instead of trying to finish off the Sounders.
Given how frank Porter was in his postgame comments to the media, it's safe to say he was brutally honest in his postgame chat with the boys.
"This is a pivotal moment," Porter said for print. "This is either the turning point where we finally decide after the guys look in the mirror and they look at that second half and they realize it's not good enough where it could be a turning point. Either a stepping stone or it's going to be a stumbling block. It's one of two things, but we've got to sort it out if we are going to win anything."
The Timbers' 2015 championship team had competitors and stand-up guys. Will Johnson might not have been on the field for that playoff run, but you can bet his personality was. Nat Borchers and Jack Jewsbury were not afraid to bark at teammates (or to show up and answer media questions after difficult results).
Hate the Sounders all you want. But understand (and respect) that leaders such as ironman Chad Marshall, aggravator galore Ossie Alonso, goalkeeper Stefan Frei and public enemy No. 1 Dempsey are fighters.
The Timbers, in their own peculiar way, have that in them. They played their best soccer on Sunday in the 20 minutes after Seattle took a 1-0 lead. As a result, they had a 2-1 lead and a man advantage heading into the second half.
And then they seemed surprised when the Sounders came out and got into their grill in the second half.
Portland, with an 11-on-10 manpower edge, generated zero first-rate scoring chances in the second half. They nearly were gifted a goal at one point, but did not trouble Frei to make a save in the second half.
Sure, the Timbers — especially given their poor defending in the previous two games and their reserve center back pairing — emphasized defensive positioning. But by lacking urgency on the ball and showing very little interest in using their extra man to attack, the Timbers added to the pressure on their makeshift back line.
And once Darlington Nagbe left with a hamstring issue in the 73rd minute, the Timbers struggled to keep possession.
An exaspirated Porter talked about the stupid fouls, a lack of urgency, and — most telling — a lack of on-field leadership.
"I'm hoping ... we can come together and have a stronger, tougher mentality," Porter said. "Because we need more leadership inside the lines."
Liam Ridgewell — as Porter noted — is the only vocal leader on this team among the first-choice unit. Sebastian Blanco, suspended for the Seattle match, appears to have some of that, but championship teams must have their best leaders in key roles.
In a comment that has been on the lips of many a Timbers fan since Sunday, Porter summed up the club's state eloquently:
"We'll always be a pretty good team, but that's not what we want to be this year and that's not what we should be this year.
"To be a great team, to be a team that wins something, we have to have more killer instinct. We have to have more guys that are finding ways to (expletive) win games."
Help will arrive in mid-July when the Timbers bolster their central defense with a new player. But perhaps the bump the Timbers really needed came off of Dempsey's dome.
Because if this is, as Porter believes, a Timbers roster capable of great things, then a result like Sunday's should provide motivation aplenty.