On Soccer: Portland Timbers searching for a scoring punch
Five months into 2022, the Portland Timbers have won three matches.
For perspective, the Timbers won six consecutive matches between Oct. 27 and Dec. 4 in their run to the 2021 MLS Cup final. So, yes, three wins over three-plus months is not good, and something for the club to focus on during this international break that lasts until the Timbers visit the LA Galaxy on June 18.
So, what's wrong?
Or, maybe nothing.
It's simple to write that this is just the Timbers doing Timbers things. Play mediocre-to-poor soccer in the first few months of the season, then, right when everyone has forgotten about you or written you off, things come together and Portland is one of the last teams standing in the playoffs.
It's not for nothin' that under Giovanni Savarese the Timbers have won the MLS is Back Tournament and reached the MLS Cup final twice. Savarese certainly understands the grind that is an MLS season, and seems to have his players at their best when the prizes are biggest.
But, watching the Timbers struggle to create goal-scoring chances for the past few months has been difficult. Of Portland's 20 league goals through their first 14 league matches, five came from buildup in the run of play. Three of those came in the first two games — and two of those three were Yimmi Chara bicycle-kick goals.
Entering the May 28 game at Miami, in their previous 12 matches the Timbers' only two goals not to be scored from transition or restarts were a Jaroslaw Niezgoda goal at the New York Red Bulls and Sebastian Blanco's goal 28 seconds after halftime against Sporting Kansas City.
Portland's means of scoring through 14 games: eight in transition, five from buildup play, three free kicks (all Bill Tuiloma goals), two corner kicks (both at San Jose) and two penalties.
It makes sense that defender Tuiloma's four goals have come from restarts. Tuiloma's been a bright spot, but no team wants a defender leading the goals-scored statistic.
It makes sense that Portland is more dangerous on counterattacks than by creating chances from buildups. That's traditionally the case in MLS, and certainly for the Timbers. Factor in Portland's shortage of natural strikers — Felipe Mora is due back this summer and Jaroslaw Niezgoda, himself working back from injury, has struggled for consistency — and we shouldn't be surprised the team has had its scoring droughts.
Take away the record seven goals against Sporting KC and Portland scored 13 goals over its first 13 league games and had a string of three games without scoring. It's not only goals scored that reflect the Timbers struggles. For what it's worth, Portland's expected-goals statistic through 14 matches was less than one per match, near the bottom of MLS.
For that to change, the Timbers need more continuity. They need Yimmi Chara, who has been a workhorse in multiple ways including showing some of his brother's defensive/recovery chops, to use more of his energy threatening defenders. They need the likes of Blanco, Eryk Williamson and Cristhian Paredes to stay healthy and build attacking chemistry.
Not to be overlooked is the thin outside back position. No knock on Justin Rasmussen, who is gaining valuable experience as a rookie, but when opponents can isolate Rasmussen and right back Josecarlos Van Rankin, it pulls teammates out of attacking positions. There's no simple solution to this quandary, though it helps if Claudio Bravo, one of the Timbers best players on the dribble who had missed six matches entering the Miami match, certainly would help.
Injuries and tough stretches are inevitable (though the Timbers had the longest injury list in MLS during a particularly challenging May schedule). History tells us the Timbers can climb out of this funk.
There's still a good chunk of season ahead. If nothing else, it would be nice to see the Timbers to rediscover joy when playing at Providence Park. Take away the seven-goal outburst against SKC, and the Timbers scored five goals in their other six home matches.
The scandals of recent months, along with pandemic fatigue, have sucked some of the old spark from the place. Those challenges aren't likely to evaporate. But an attack that can be a threat in multiple ways can lift spirits, and the club's position in the standings.
International Timbers — Tuiloma (New Zealand) and defender Pablo Bonilla (Venezuela) are spending the international break with their national teams. Safe to say, Tuiloma's travels are more challenging and more significant.
On June 14 in Doha, Qatar, Tuiloma and the All Whites take on Costa Rica in an intercontinental playoff match that will determine the final entry into this fall's World Cup. Obviously, it's a huge opportunity for Tuiloma, who is playing the best soccer of his career.
Before the playoff match, New Zealand has a friendly match against Peru on June 5 in Spain.
Tuiloma has scored four goals in 31 games for New Zealand's senior national team, two of them in a 5-0 win over the Solomon Islands on March 30.
For Bonilla, this is the third time he has been called up to Venezuela's senior national team, which has friendly matches June 1 at Malta and June 9 against Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain.
Thorns at home — Speaking of rediscovering home mojo, the Thorns have a shot to do that when Angel City FC visits Providence Park for a 7:30 p.m. National Women's Soccer League match on Saturday, June 3.
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