After scoring 32 goals in the first 2,945 minutes of 2015, the Portland Timbers scored 9 goals in 115 minutes. In other words, just past the hour mark against the LA Galaxy last weekend, the Timbers were scoring a goal every 92 minutes. Since then, the Timbers have on average scored every 12 minutes and 47 seconds.
And yet, the Timbers’ attacking renaissance seems like at best a footnote to what has been on the whole a remarkable turnaround to the 2015 season over the last eleven days.
Eleven days ago the question was whether the Timbers were a club headed into crisis. Today the question is whether the Timbers are the hottest team in MLS heading into the postseason.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ 4-1 win over the Colorado Rapids:
1. Who saw this coming?
At least nobody outside the Timbers’ locker room.
Although the game on Sunday against the Rapids always seemed like a likely win for the Timbers, things were as bleak as they’ve been during the Caleb Porter Era after a seemingly season-killing loss to Sporting Kansas City on October 10th. With visits to RSL and the Galaxy on the horizon and the Timbers sitting outside the playoff picture, Portland needed points and it wasn’t immediately apparent where those would come from.
Fast forward to October 25th and the Timbers will again be hosting SKC on Thursday, but this time with the Timbers as the third seed and the Wiz as the sixth. The Timbers faced up to a three-game stretch in which four points would have been an acceptable outcome and ran the table.
On paper, Thursday’s is a loathsome matchup for the Timbers. Portland, after all, hasn’t beaten SKC at Providence Park (or Jeld-Wen Field) since 2012.
But after what these Timbers have done in the last week and a half, doesn’t it seem perfect?
After the game Caleb Porter made a point to emphasize how the team reacted with the doubters and the red line closing in. With their backs against the wall, Porter lauded the Timbers’ ability to play when one point, one misplayed pass, or one missed mark, could mean the end of the season. And, frankly, it’s hard to argue with Porter’s exuberance with the team’s reaction.
The world-beater, against-all-odds Timbers are the best Timbers.
With SKC coming to Providence Park, a venue that the Wiz have made their own over the last couple years, the Timbers have to do some world beating once again. Over the course of the next four days, we’ll hear about how SKC has taken seven points from their last three trips to the Rose City. About how the Timbers haven’t scored a goal against the Wizards since April 27, 2013. About how Peter Vermes is Caleb Porter’s new Jason Kreis.
So this matchup kind of seems perfect for this Timbers group, doesn’t it?
2. How good was Darlington Nagbe on Sunday?
There are few topics that come up in press conferences that make Porter touchier than questions about Nagbe. In Porter’s view, Nagbe gets a bad rap. Although the goalscoring production isn’t always there, from Porter’s perspective the things that Nagbe does in transition with the ball at his feet - cutting out defenders and driving at the backline - are world class.
And, although Porter was in a decidedly good mood after the win against Colorado, a question about whether Sunday was Nagbe’s best game in his time playing for Porter elicited a little bit of the usual sensitiveness.
Oh man, he’s good every game. He’s good every game, guys. He’s good every training. He’s a special player.
But in terms of effectiveness, yeah, maybe.
Nagbe is a special player. And Porter is right; even when Nagbe isn’t providing the scoresheet production, there are things he does that very few - if any - in the league can do. And those things help the Timbers in significant ways.
But the Darlington Nagbe we saw on Sunday evening at Providence Park was extra special. He was the best player on the field.
And there aren’t many MLS fields you could put that Nagbe on where he wouldn’t be the best player.
Darlington Nagbe, take a bow. You just had your best game as a Timber.
3. What is it about Diego Chara and George Fochive?
Chara and Fochive aren’t good together. And although this is kind of a backhanded way of saying Fochive and Jack Jewsbury are great together, it’s a little surprising.
Diego Chara is a really good player; a deserving two-time Supporters Player of the Year and one of the best players in Timbers history.
George Fochive is also a good young player; a defensive midfielder that has shattered every expectation placed on him over the course of his two years in MLS.
But together, the two of them are somehow less than what they are individually. Throughout the first half and into the dawn of the second, Fochive and Chara weren’t great. For spells of the first half the Rapids had some unexpected joy in midfield during which Chara and Fochive were disconnected and perpetually chasing the game.
Fochive, in particular, was on the losing side of a number of challenges he has to win, and sprayed a couple passes that he has to complete. But for the most part the problem was the two lacked understanding of where eachother were, and how to use the other to shut down Colorado’s attack.
In an instant, however, things changed and Fochive was back to the stellar form we have come to expect from him this year. And that instant, it turned out, was when Chara went off in the 50th minute and the Timbers brought on Jack Jewsbury.
As a central-midfield partner, Chara is a little bit of a handful. He likes to take some risks and get stuck into some tackles. He likes to carry the ball forward and help facilitate the midfield buildup. And he’s very, very effective at both of those things.
When Chara is partnered with a player who sits in front of the backline, organizes, and distributes, the balance works out perfectly. This, coincidentally, is why in the last two years Chara’s best moments have been while he’s paired with Ben Zemanski or Jack Jewsbury.
But the simple reality is Fochive doesn’t have either the right instincts or the tactical awareness at his early stage of his career to sit and cover while Chara terrorizes the opposing midfield. That isn’t necessarily a criticism of Fochive - it’s the same criticism many have rightly leveled at Will Johnson when paired with Chara - it’s just an acknowledgement that Fochive has box-to-box instincts that he can’t override when the Timbers need him to be the six to Chara’s eight.
Bring on Jewsbury, however, and Fochive’s instincts lead him in the right direction: An aggressive, vertically-moving ball-winner to partner with Jewsbury’s solid, smart holding play. And although he’s still missing some passes in the attack, the fact that Fochive is largely making those passes in an attacking position means a miss isn’t going to be as much trouble for the Timbers defense as an errant ball in Portland’s own half.
Although this hasn’t been explicitly stated over the course of the last week or so, this mismatch between Chara and Fochive was a major motivating factor for the Timbers sitting Chara as a single pivot in the inverted 4-3-3 they deployed against RSL and the Galaxy. And the mismatch was on display again on Sunday.
Which is all a long way of saying this: If George Fochive keeps developing he’s going to be a big part of this Timbers team for years to come.
But it’s going to be as Diego Chara’s successor, not as his partner.