In competitive games in the month of July, the Portland Timbers have one win, one draw, and two losses. Not so good. July has always been a bit of a problem for Portland, last year, John Spencer was sacked in the seventh month, which turned into a hellish horror show. There has been nothing hellish about the Timbers' 2013 campaign, but July wasn't rosy - it was the worst month of the season to date.
July is smack in the middle of the grueling MLS summer, interrupted with friendlies and internationals and injuries and other concerns. You're not quite to the All-Star game, not quite to the season's stretch-run, but past the point where players and teams are competing to define themselves making stakes for respect and run.
Saturday night, Portland traveled to San Jose for a game you hoped the Timbers would show up for and win. It was the third time Portland had played the erstwhile top team in MLS, and San Jose were in dire straits, sagging near the bottom of the Western Conference with an interim coach and two of their most important players prepping for the Gold Cup Final with the US national team.
By now, the Timbers should know that you have to match the Earthquakes intensity - if you do, you'll beat them with skill. But against San Jose, you must bring it. The Quakes want to play a bruising, consuming game, and if you get into that game with them, San Jose, at least this year, will make a crucial mistake or have a player lose their head late in a game.
In the team's first meeting in Portland, the two teams looked like boars grappling in a ring of fire instead of the pitch at Jeld-Wen Field, and sure enough, Alan Gordon got himself dismissed, Will Johnson struck a brilliant free kick for the three points. In the team's second meeting, Portland started out hot, cooled off, and paid when Adam Jahn struck a stoppage time equalizer.
The Timbers, even minus the biggest little man in Major League Soccer, Diego Chara, had far more talent on the field than the San Jose Earthquakes Saturday night, but they never found the right level of gumption and stress until it was too late. Portland was flat - far, far too flat.
You can tell when a soccer team is doing little more than going through the motions - not because they aren't trying, but because going through the motions is all that team has to offer on the given day. Portland can always offer more than going through the motions at home and in most big games, but they couldn't offer much more Saturday night, even with an incredibly rare chance to pick up three points when the number one, three and four teams in the Western Conference all lost Saturday.
The Timbers were anything but clinical in front of net, and they were often lackadaisical defending their own net. Both of San Jose's goals resulted from poor defending. First, Shea Salinas skated through five Portland players before Andrew Jean-Baptiste brought him clumsily down for a penalty that was converted by Victor Bernardez, and just minutes later, the Timbers fell asleep on a quickly-taken free-kick that was turned in by Steven Lenhart.
Lenhart's gross goal celebration was a reminder that the Earthquakes are a team the Timbers like to beat more than most, but by the time Portland got a goal - a cool counter-attack finish from Darlington Nagbe set up by the evergreen Frederic Piquionne; and San Jose made their mistake - a red card rolled in stupidity from Martin Chavez, it was too late. Portland pushed in the final minutes, but couldn't come up with a leveler.
It was a tough loss, one that didn't come with an excuse built in, like Portland's defeat at Columbus earlier in the month did. It was a demoralizing end to a downer month, as two camps emerge with thought to the Timbers' season.
One camp generally says that Portland is having a fun, enjoyable season, but a run at the MLS Cup is a few years off. The other camp thinks that Portland has an outside chance to win the championship this year. I tend to side with the latter camp, but obvious flaws have emerged to make me reconsider my position.
Portland misses Mikael Silvestre, their defense is slow, and while capable, the potential for a cover-your-eyes moment is there. Diego Valeri, who, if reports are to be believed, has been bought by the Timbers for a fee in excess of three million pounds, goes missing in games too often, and the same can be said about a handful of Timbers attackers. Away from home, this team lacks a certain dynamism.
All of these doubts can be washed away in August. The next month is a mega one for the Timbers. Two Cascadia Cup games, and a US Open Cup semi-final which is one of three games against Real Salt Lake, the only team the Timbers trail in the Western Conference. Portland doesn't go on the road again in MLS play for more than three weeks, and the Timbers have a real chance to go into September with the West lead and a shot at the Supporter's Shield.
For now, there's a bit of gloom. No doom, just gloom. It's not time to panic, just time to figure out what is ailing this team. I'd look for Portland to make a statement against Vancouver in a week at Jeld-Wen. July is over. Bring on August.