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Portland Timbers Push for the Playoffs: How they got there

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With 6 games remaining I started thinking about the season and how the Portland Timbers got to be where they are now. The more I thought about it the more I came to realize that the Timbers season could have been much much worse, say Vancouver Whitecaps like (even they are figuring things out right now). So I asked a question of my fellow writers on Stumptown:

What was the turning point in the Portland Timbers season?

Check their answers out after the jump:


Geoff:

"Really it all started at the back. Back in June and July there was a serious problem with the Timbers backline. Frankly they were just letting things slide right through them, like a hot knife through butter. I fully believe that two things happened which shored up some gaping problems:


First, as we all know, Mike Chabala and Lovel Palmer were traded to the Timbers. Both have been fantastic in the back and have definitely helped keep the right and left back more stable than they were with Rodney Wallace or Jeremy Hall/Steve Purdy. Not to say the latter players were terrible (I for one think Rodney Wallace has a future with the Timbers still) but they were inexperienced in MLS. Chabala and Lovel brought that sort of veteran experience and it's paid off in dividends.

Second, the Timbers have finally found two center backs that work very well together. I wouldn't have believed in in the beginning, but David Horst and Eric Brunner have been great together. I think as the two work together during the off season and into next year we'll see even more consistency between the two, but for now they're delivering in every way we could have hoped.

This obviously had a ripple effect for the midfield and the strikers. With the defense shored up, we saw that Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury could focus more on the attack. Chara specifically has been much more active in the last 4-5 games and it's reaped huge rewards for the team."    

Andrew:

 "I think a key part of the Timbers' plan from the start of the season was Kerrea Gilbert, and not being able to get him made them rely an awful lot on a fragile plan B. Under the Gilbert plan he would have played on the wing likely opposite Rodney Wallace, but some combination of Horst/Brunner/Futty/Goldthwaite would still have been our center fullbacks. The growing pains the center backs have experienced would still probably have happened had we had Gilbert, but perhaps we would have been less flexible on the back line if he'd been on the team.

As it happened we had two guys who were ok and certainly replaceable and a center pairing that just needed to gel a bit. The replacement of the wings and the center backs figuring things out seemed to happen at about the same time, and here we are today.

Possibly overlooked with regard to defense is the improvement that has been made in the midfield. Also around the same time Palmer and Chabala came on, the roles of Chara and Jewsbury became more solidified.

Timbers fans were rightly concerned earlier in the year that their captain and their designated player were too similar, and that they served too similar a purpose in the lineup. Both defensively minded, they tended to be less effective carrying the ball forward to the attack. That left two less experienced wings, in addition to the defensive wings, with too much of the burden of linking up with the attack. That, in turn, left the flanks (especially the wider ones on the road) far too vulnerable to the opposition and exposed Brunner/Horst/Futty to too many dangerous crosses.

Since Chara has asserted himself as an offensive threat in the middle, the wings have been able to play a more balanced game at both ends of the pitch, and Jewsbury has been able to really concentrate on holding the defensive position in the middle of pitch. With Chara, Alhassan and Zizzo more available to challenge for the ball and intercept passes while Jewsbury, Chabala and Palmer hold their positions/marks, the crosses that have come into the goal area have been fewer and weaker, and our central defenders have had an easier time challenging for them.

But the most important thread running through all of this analysis is just plain better team play -- better communication and understanding from all the players about their expectations for themselves and each other -- and that has produced higher confidence."

Will D:

 "I think a lot of the team's success has to do with getting into a rhythm and establishing some kind of rapport with each other, and since the middle of May that has seemed to slowly develop. Maybe having a modicum of consistency in the back line with Palmer and Chabala there helped establish said rapport, but I think that there has to be some pretty big-league coaching going on for such a young team to gel the way they have. Also, playing Vancouver and the Revs at home didn't hurt too much either..."

Ryan:

"I think the turning point in the season was like a watershed moment after the acquisition of Lovel Palmer and Mike Chabala. I think their biggest contribution is the fact they hold both Sal Zizzo and Kalif Alhassan accountable for their defensive assignment. If you watch during a game they are constantly yelling at the young wings to get back and D-up. Steve Purdy and Rodney Wallace were either not able to or did not hold those 2 accountable.

Once the wings were shored up a little our Center Backs no longer had to be pulled out so often to the outside. Which in turn allowed them to win the balls that came into the middle of the field. Also our Central Mids no longer had to track outside to pick up defenders and they in turn were able to actually be the outlets for the defenders. Which made our possession game better and our attack that much better."

What do you think was the turning point in the season?