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Keeping the Playoff Hopes Alive

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We'll sing for you, Timbers, til you finish the fight! (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
We'll sing for you, Timbers, til you finish the fight! (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Yup, last week was a bad week.

The Portland Timbers squandered another lead against the San Jose Earthquakes, suddenly unable to keep possession and put any pressure at all on the Quakes' defense. They followed up the draw with a better quality performance on the weekend that ended in a bizarre and heartbreaking loss to the New York Red Bulls.

The Timbers are now two points behind the playoff cut, with basically five teams competing for two spots. At times like these, it's easy to throw in the towel, cut your losses, and hoist the "Wait Til Next Year" sign.

But although the odds of our making the playoffs have fallen, our hope remains. And for good reason.

1. Darlington Nagbe

Yeah, I know, it's kind of obvious, but it's worth taking a closer look anyway. When Nagbe plays, the whole team plays better.

One big statistical indicator: the team passes more when Nagbe's on the field. A lot more. Since May, when Nagbe has played 45 or fewer minutes, the team has averaged only 207 successful passes per match, with a success rate of 69%. In matches in which Nagbe has played 75 minutes or more, the team averages 276 successful passes, with a 76% average rate of success. It's a pretty quality player who, when he's on the field and playing well, can so significantly improve the team in such an important statistical area.

True, the improved passing has not necessarily led to wins; it's only a part of the game, after all. But it does correspond with more possession, more chances, and more shots. Some of those are going to go in.

2. James Marcelin

Remember him? The Haitian Sensation has yet to start a Timbers match since scoring two goals in two matches for his home country. Now, granted, those goals came against island nations with populations smaller than my high school, but they were goals nonetheless. Having watched him in training since then, I can tell you: Marcelin came back to Portland hungry to play.

He'll get his chance this Sunday, as he is likely to replace Captain Jack Jewsbury in the starting lineup (unless Peter Lowry's pair of assists in Tuesday's reserve match earn him the start, which would be pretty exciting as well). I expect to see him making the most of his chance and playing at the very top of his game, both defensively and offensively.

3. Draws

It's easy to forget in this nation of winners and losers, but roughly a third of all MLS matches end in draws. For example, the Philadelphia Union could draw against DC United on Thursday. They could also be held to a point against Chivas USA on Sunday. DC United could tie Columbus on Sunday. As long as the Timbers manage some wins and the rest of the league fills the table with its requisite allotment of draws, there's still a chance.

And besides, upsets are always possible in soccer -- just ask Real Salt Lake how they managed to lose 4-1 to DC, or Manchester United about their 3-3 draw with Swiss club Basel on Tuesday. Toronto FC could just as easily crush the NYRBs on Saturday.

But the mighty PTFC gotsta get those wins.

4. Rest

The Timbers will have at least four days of rest in between its matches from now until the last game, when they'll be playing on two days' rest against RSL, who will be resting their starters for the playoffs. As noted above, DC United and Philly are not so lucky with their schedules. More rest for the Timbers means more training sessions, too -- more time to improve and sharpen their game. Teams simply play better when they've had four to seven days of rest than they do when they've had two or three.

5. Soul? Spirit? Some intangible quality?

Whatever it is, Portland's got it; the other teams don't. They cannot stop us; we are the Rose City. We are the greatest football supporters that the world has ever seen. We're going to win the league. I don't know how; I don't know when -- but we're going to win the league (this year).

Where's your hope?