In the press conference following the Portland Timbers' 5-1 win over the Wilmington Hammerheads, Caleb Porter responded to a question about why he was seen lecturing Andrew Jean-Baptiste at halftime, even though the Timbers were up 4-0. Porter responded that he had seen some mistakes he wanted to iron out and that it's always better to learn from your mistakes during a win than during a loss.
The Timbers have been having a great season—15 games unbeaten, a home shutout streak going back to March, and not a single loss on the road—so their mistakes, so far, haven't cost them much. But there are certainly still things to work on. There’s still a sense that some of those draws could or should have been wins. With Porter's point in mind, here are a few areas where there is room for improvement as the Timbers begin the second half of the season.
Halfway through the season, the Timbers still have just five goals from set pieces, one of which was a direct free kick. When they earn a corner kick or a free kick, they just do not look as threatening as they should. Service on set pieces has improved since Will Johnson took over those duties from Diego Valeri and it seems like we should be getting more goals like this one:
This is especially true when Frederic Piquionne is on the field, giving Johnson a great target to aim for, but the Timbers’ big center backs should also be more dangerous on set pieces than they have been, especially Futty Danso, who has headed home his fair share of set pieces.
It may seem like overkill to root for a team with 28 goals and a league-best +12 goal differential and still complain that they should be scoring more goals. A look at FC Dallas and the Philadelphia Union, each with 12 goals on set pieces and in a similar position to the Timbers in terms of points and goals scored, shows how helpful it can be to have set pieces as another weapon in the arsenal.
The Timbers could still use some work on set pieces at the other end of the field as well. I wrote a piece dedicated to just this topic a while back, so I will not rehash the same points here. I’ll just say the Timbers do not look terribly confident, especially when Piquionne isn’t out there to win the headers, and that WhoScored.com identifies this as an area where the Timbers are "very weak."
Winning the one-on-ones
The Timbers’ outside backs, Ryan Miller and Jack Jewsbury in particular, are both poor one-on-one defenders. To an extent, this is beyond their control—they are a couple of guys who are not naturally fast who are often tasked with marking speedy wingers. That is always going to be a challenge. Sometimes though, they end up getting beat because of bad positioning and a tendency to over-commit to the ball.
Miller provided a perfect demonstration of this in the 58th minute of the Timbers home game against the Colorado Rapids. He tried to beat Deshorn Brown to a ball that he clearly didn't have a chance at winning. Suddenly he was trailing Brown and it was all too easy for the Rapids forward to cut in front of him into the box. As he did so, Miller lunged in for a last-ditch tackle that surely would have drawn a penalty kick if Brown had gone down. Instead, Brown cut the ball back to Nick LaBrocca whose shot beat Donovan Ricketts, but was cleared away by Jewbury.
If these situations don’t end with an opposing player dancing past our fullbacks and into the box, it is often because a center back came out wide to help cover, leaving the Timbers more exposed in front of goal. This happened frequently in Chicago, where was regularly pulled out of position as he tried to cover for Jewsbury.
Breaking out of the bunker
A few times this season the Timbers have taken a lead on the road only to spend much of the last 15-30 minutes pinned back into their own defensive third, ultimately collapsing under the barrage of crosses and shots and conceding a goal (or two).
We can probably be fairly confident that bunkering down would not be Porter's preferred way to close out the game (and contrary to popular belief, I don't think he sees Zemanski as a strictly defensive substitution). Of course, the other team also gets to have some say in how the game plays out, and it's unreasonable to expect the Timbers to control all 90+ minutes of every game. Nonetheless, no team wants to concede that much possession late in the game when the game is close.
The Timbers need to work on asserting their will more in these situations. Mostly they just need to keep playing the way they always try to play. They should pass and move, pressure the ball, and build out of the back instead of booting the ball up to no one other than the opposing center backs. Even for the Timbers, a very fit team with a lot of drive, these things can fall by the wayside as legs get tired and the momentum of the game starts to turn against them. Sometimes the passes stop connecting, opponents are given to much time and space with ball, and the Timbers commit stupid fouls. Fouls in dangerous areas, it so happens, are another weakness identified by WhoScored.com and the ensuing free kicks have cost the Timbers at least a couple points, most recently to the Chicago Fire.
What mistakes and weaknesses do you think the Timbers need to learn from?