Timbers look to turn corner
For the Portland Timbers, for their fans (and certainly for this reporter) the midpoint of the 2021 MLS season was a long time coming.
This has been a unique and vexing season on many fronts. But, despite missing some significant players, despite the schedule crunch of the early Concacaf Champions League matches, despite not having a consistent lineup, or a clear-cut identity, Portland was above the Western Conference playoff line 18 games into its 34-match schedule.
Opinions about the state of the club will be colored by Sunday's 6-2 home loss to the rival Seattle Sounders. And with a five-match road stretch starting Wednesday, Aug. 18 against first-place Sporting Kansas City, optimism is difficult to muster.
Still, writing this team off would be short-sighted in a league known for dramatic changes of fortune late the season. But angst makes sense. The Sounders, despite missing some of their own most impactful players, have been one of the best teams in Major League Soccer. And, when the rival is cruising, the spotlight on blemishes is brighter.
Not that a bright light is needed to see the Timbers' blemishes.
Through 18 games, Portland's minus-10 goals differential was — by far — the worst among the teams in playoff position (seventh place or better) in either conference.
The Timbers, who last August were winning the MLS is Back tournament, have five losses by three or more goals. Portland is 1-6-1 away from Providence Park.
It might be foolish to say the next five games will define Portland's season, but the fact that all five are on the road means the next few weeks will decide how challenging the last third of this season will be.
Portland's 35 goals allowed are the second most in the league through 18 matches. And it's no fluke. Portland's expected goals against, a number that attempts to measure the quality of opponents' shots, through 17 games was the 26th highest among 27 MLS clubs at 1.847 per match.
That number will need to come down if the Timbers are to do anything more than straddle the playoff line between now and November.
For that to happen, the backline needs to be less of a revolving door. Larrys Mabiala and Dario Zuparic, Portland's top center back pairing, started together in only six of the first 18 league games. Bill Tuiloma has done good work in the middle, but factor in that left back Claudio Bravo and right back Josecarlos Van Rankin are MLS newcomers — and that five (five!) goalkeepers have played —Â and some defensive disarray is explainable.
Add in the rotating midfield and the miles on Diego Chara's legs (which lessens his ability to cover for teammates' mistakes) and there is not a clear solution to the defensive struggles.
Coach Giovanni Savarese this week mentioned that the whole team must be "much better" on the defensive side of the ball. He also said his team must be better with the ball. Too many times, Portland has lost possession when teammates were out of position to defend a counterattack. Too many times, outside backs have been caught upfield without proper cover.
The Timbers' attack statistically ranked fifth in the Western Conference through 18 games with 25 goals, close to their expected goals (24.6). Given the lack of a true playmaker, that's not bad.
The return to health of Sebastian Blanco, who through Sunday had played only 229 minutes but delivered a goal and two terrific game-winning assists, should bolster Portland's effectiveness in the attacking third.
The Chara brothers figure to play significant roles, too. Yimmi Chara, in his second season in Portland, is looking more confident by the week. Diego Chara remains one of the best disruptors in the league — though the Timbers have won three times without the older Chara in the lineup, something that's rarely happened in Portland's first decade in MLS.
That reflects improved depth —Â or, more precisely, development — with Eryk Williamson and, more recently, George Fochive, successfully channeling Diego Chara's competitive streak.
A more confident Williamson, who was having a strong season even before playing an important role for the United States National Team in its Gold Cup triumph, could be key if the Timbers are to make one more championship push with Diego Valeri, now best as a role player, contributing.
A more streamlined rotation might help the Timbers find a more consistent rhythm.
The trade of Jeremy Ebobisse to San Jose might have come as a surprise to some, but Ebobisse always was likely to move on. If not for COVID-19, Ebobisse might have been transferred to a European club last year.
Ebobisse's departure gives Felipe Mora a chance to own the striker role — at least until Jarolsaw Niezgoda gains full fitness. Acquiring Mora was a big offseason move, and it's paid off as the Chilean had six goals in his first 13 appearances.
Dairon Asprilla's play (four goals) has been one of the fun stories of 2021. Now 29 and in his seventh season in Portland, he has taken advantage of the absence of Blanco to play the most consistent soccer of his career, both as a difficult one-on-one matchup for defenders and by embracing defensive assignments.
The role of wingers Asprilla and of Marvin Loria (two goals, four assists, 12 starts) will be something to watch as Blanco returns to full fitness. Another factor might be the arrival of Santiago Moreno, the 21-year-old Colombian attacker, brought to Portland on a MLS under-22 initiative deal. There will be high expectations for the versatile attacker. Gavin Wilkinson, Giovanni Savarese and Merritt Paulson, of course, will be thrilled if Moreno can have an instant impact, but his acquisition was a longer-term move.
The long view of roster management is the responsibility of Wilkinson and technical director Ned Grabavoy, who recently had his contract extended.
For Savarese and his staff, the challenge is to have the 2021 Timbers confident and in form when summer turns to fall. Almost always publicly optimistic, Savarese last week said that, with his roster finally close to full strength, "We still have the opportunity in the second half of the season to make a statement."
Given that Savarese on Sunday was an apologizing to Timbers fans, it's fair to question if the 2021 Timbers are up to having a say in the playoff fight.
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