After the Portland Timbers 4-2 loss to Real Salt Lake over the weekend, we were all reeling. The Timbers had been on a good run of results leading into the match, including their 5-3 aggregate victory over the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference Semifinal, so the manner in which RSL dismantled the Timbers came as a shock, despite the Timbers' inability to beat RSL in four previous games this year.
Immediately after the match we gave our immediate reactions as to what needs to change before the Timbers' home leg against RSL.
In the easier said than done category, the Timbers need to vastly improve in defense if there's any hope at all of advancing past the semifinal round. From poor set piece defending to disastrous play on counter attacks and even in simple tracking back, Portland was downright bad at the back for the first time since, well, playing in Sandy the last time. On that day, Caleb Porter resorted to using three at the back, so at least there was a built in excuse. This time? It was old standbys Futty Danso and Jack Jewsbury who were abused for Real Salt Lake goals. Obviously the attacking side of the ball could stand to actually trouble Nick Rimando but if the Timbers give up any goals in the second leg it will be extremely difficult to compete on aggregate. Luckily they have a recent example of holding RSL scoreless at Jeld-Wen. The question will be whether Porter sticks by his guys and leaves Futty in at center back or if Andrew Jean-Baptiste gets a run in what could very well be the final game of the season.
If only they'd considered improving defensively before the first leg, we might have something else to talk about.
Too often Portland's center backs were forced into 1v1 situations. Pah Madou Kah and Futty's were at their best over the last 8 or 9 games when they have been able to stay central and keep everything in front of them and not when they were found out on the wings like they were multiple times. They had to cover the wings because RSL found space on the wings behind Jewsbury and Harrington and thus stretched the gap between the two CB's. When the gap is there Portland is very vulnerable to speed. Now they have to chase the game and this too will open up the gaps in Portland's defense.
File this one with Michael's under "easier said than done:" the Timbers have to figure out how to keep from getting overrun in the midfield. Diego Chara and Will Johnson were completely dominated by Real Salt Lake last night and when that happens the Timbers don't really stand a chance. Without those two stemming the flow of RSL's attack, the back line was under way to much pressure. Chara and Johnson also struggled to get the ball forward to Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri, who in turn could not find space to operate the way the usually do. Even though Real Salt Lake is a great team who has refined this style of play more than the Timbers have, there's really no way they should have so thoroughly outclassed Portland's very talented midfield.
It was the exact opposite of what I (foolishly) thought was going to happen, but the Timbers were clearly the team that suffered the most from playing only three days before. As a result they were slow to track back and slow to get forward in support when the Timbers did get a rare moment of possession in the opposing half. Rodney Wallace and Ryan Johnson in the first half, as well Darlington Nagbe and Jose Adolfo Valencia in the second, would push forward only to find themselves with no support and nowhere to go. Despite the individual skill on evidence in the Timbers' roster and the occasional solo wonder-goal, they are still best when attacking in concert.
The two weeks off between matches, despite being an agonizing wait for the rest of us, could do the Timbers a world of good. There are undoubtedly improvements to be made on both ends of the pitch, but the first order for the Timbers needs to be putting together an effort that matches their opponent's for a full 90', something that they have not managed so far in the playoffs.
What do you think needs to change before next Sunday?