Yes, the MLS season is a marathon. But for the Portland Timbers, the home stretch is a sprint. And, like with sprinters anywhere, a clean start is vital.
The Timbers did not start well enough on Sunday and paid the price when an own-goal gifted D.C. United the lead. It was the fourth time in their past five games that the Timbers have fallen behind.
After the 1-0 loss at Providence Park, the Timbers pointed to their comeback win over Sporting Kansas City as evidence they can overcome deficits. But against D.C. United, Portland's energy level was not great during the first half. The Timbers turned up the tempo in the second half, but again could not find a way through an organized opponent.
Giovanni Savarese's team is on OK playoff footing because FC Dallas and SKC appear to be in free-fall. The Timbers are in the final MLS Western Conference playoff spot and have a game in hand over every other team. But Sunday started a sprint of five games in 15 days that continues with a 7:30 p.m. Wednesday visit from the New York Red Bulls. And Portland's home-heavy schedule is anything but a security blanket.
Seven games into a 10-game run of home games that was supposed to vault Portland near the top of the West, the Timbers have gone 4-3 and picked up only 12 points. The four home losses this season are as many as Portland suffered in 2017 and 2018 combined. Only in their expansion season of 2011 did the Timbers lose more home games (five).
Perhaps the back-loaded schedule created a false sense of security. Instead of playing with a spring in their step, the Timbers have looked frustrated as opponent after opponent has come to Providence Park intent on defending deep.
The Timbers are hardly unique in struggling against teams that flood the defensive third of the field with bodies. Solve that puzzle, Valeri suggested Sunday, and you will win a lot of championships. But the Timbers must solve it, or at least start games with more desperation than we've seen, so that opponents don't get comfortable defending.
"They had two lines of four (defending). I'm responsible for being in the box if the ball does get there, but I find myself unable to find any space," said Jeremy Ebobisse, who had only one shot and 39 touches against D.C. United. "We just have to move the ball as quickly as we can, try to move guys out of position, and from there, penetrate when we can, and I have to be ready for any second balls, scrappy balls that might drop."
• Eryk Williamson, who started his second MLS match in midfield for the Timbers, grew up in the D.C. United Academy. He called it fun to play against friends, but bittersweet, given the result.
Savarese praised the play of Williamson and fellow youngsters Marvin Loria and Tomas Conechny. But with five games left, the Timbers desperately need Sebastian Blanco (calf strain), Brian Fernandez (illness) to get well soon.
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