Turbulence marks odd soccer season
To call the way the season ended for Portland's professional soccer teams frustrating is putting it mildly.
The Timbers and the Thorns had championship aspirations this season, which perhaps seems silly in retrospect after both teams closed the regular season in shaky form, then had their playoff run limited to one game.
The Timbers' 2-1 loss Saturday at Real Salt Lake and the Thorns' 1-0 loss on Sunday at Chicago were not surprising. And neither outcome was a result of fluky bounces or bad mojo from the soccer gods.
Though, it did seem like the mojo of the entire organization turned wonky as August turned to September.
In the case of the Timbers, the illness of Brian Fernandez — whether it really was a stomach ailment or a sickness of another kind — turned the Timbers from title threat to playoff long shot.
Fernandez faded in terms of production before he became unavailable late in the season. But from his first goal for the Timbers on May 15 as a substitute at Houston to his last goal of the season, the Sept. 7 stoppage-time winner against Sporting Kansas City, Fernandez demonstrated that most-valued of soccer skills — the ability to find an opportunity and make it count.
Without Fernandez, teams focused on limiting Sebastian Blanco — the most important attacker on this Timbers roster. Add in the absence of Diego Valeri, and Blanco's impact weakened more.
Valeri was the focus of most of the angst for Timbers fans as the season wound down. Once reports of strained contract negotiations between Valeri and the club became public, it darkened the moods of even the most passionate fans.
When, in the 85th minute on Saturday, Valeri's shot from the top of the penalty area skipped just outside the post, I'm sure I wasn't the only one wondering if that would be his final significant touch for the Timbers.
Which gets to the heart of the frustration about the way this Timbers season ended. The first-half performance was lousy. The wintry, windy weather was a factor. Then, for much of the second half, the Timbers looked like a team committed and capable of making a playoff run.
But as that Valeri shot drifted past the post, I wondered if I was watching the closing of a championship window. Whether he's in Portland or not next March, Valeri will be nearing his 34th birthday at the start of the 2020 season. His minutes and role will evolve. He shouldn't be counted on to play more minutes than any other attacking player (as he did this season with 2,600). I don't know if that workload contributed to Valeri's late-season calf injury, but the days of him putting a team on his back as he did in his 2017 MVP season are behind him.
Which is the heart of the conundrum for the Timbers. If they pay Valeri as a Designated Player but can't afford to improve the roster around him, how competitive can Portland be? Can Gavin Wilkinson keep the beloved Valeri in Portland and still address needed upgrades at right wing, center back, defensive midfield and overall depth?
The fans, understandably, want both Valeri and an improved roster come 2020. But in the salary-controlled MLS, it's a challenging puzzle.
How the Valeri saga plays out will be the headline-grabber of the offseason. As for 2019, I will remember it as unsettled.
Every MLS season is a roller-coaster. The 12-game road trip, the Timbers Army taking a stand with MLS over signage, 300 consecutive scoreless minutes at Providence Park, the thrilling arrival of Fernandez and his very human off-field struggles made this one feel stranger and longer.
Saturday's match at RSL mirrored the bumpy ride. An ugly start was followed by exciting possibility but an ultimately deflating conclusion.
• The Thorns' season also was tumultuous.
With nine players participating in the Women's World Cup, turbulence was expected. The surprise was how well the team handled those absences and a schedule heavy on road games at the outset.
The Thorns scored a club-record 40 goals. But 39 came in the first 19 games — they then scored once in their final six matches.
That phase of futility started with a shocking 6-0 home loss to North Carolina, the worst defeat in club history and one that signaled the Thorns really weren't at a championship level.
Players and coaches said the right things after that match, that it was a reset moment and would motivate everyone to play better down the stretch.
Instead, the Thorns seemed worn down emotionally and physically by the home stretch.
Lindsey Horan, the NWSL Most Valuable Player in 2018, had a difficult time impacting matches at her normal high level. Tobin Heath had a few interesting one-v-one (or one-v-three) dribbling attacks on Sunday, but the crisp interplay that had everyone buzzing after a 5-0 July 24 thrashing of the Houston Dash was long gone.
(The Aug. 16 season-ending knee injury to rookie midfielder Gabby Seiler was a significant blow because it took away a player who can play multiple roles and is one of the Thorns' best at delivering a pass to transition from defending to attacking).
Effort, for the most part, wasn't the Thorns' downfall. They kept the pressure on Chicago to defend for much of Sunday's second half.
But whether the cause was chemistry lost as players' roles shifted or confidence shaken beyond repair by a couple of bad outings, the final version of the 2019 Thorns was a picture of frustration.
At the end, they lacked the patience to unlock defenses and the poise to do much more than flail at the few scoring chances that did arrive.
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