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Three Questions from the Timbers’ 1-0 Loss to Sporting Kansas City

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Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

The Portland Timbers dominated much of the game against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday night.

What was that? Oh, you have? Sorry, I’ll just move on then.

Here are three questions from the Timbers’ devastating loss to SKC:

1. Is that it for the Timbers’ season?

Before Saturday evening I thought the fixture against SKC was going to be the bellwether for the Timbers’ playoff chances. If the Timbers won, I thought playoff qualification would be overwhelmingly likely. If not, it could be touch and go.

Well, it’s touch and go now, as the Timbers find themselves back below the red line with three games to play.

Although the Timbers have a game in hand on the sixth-place San Jose Earthquakes, Portland also has to travel to the Stub Hub Center in their second to last game. So, in reality, the Timbers might as well not have a game in hand.

Which is to say this: If the Timbers even want to make the playoffs they’re going to have to earn their own way from here. A result in Salt Lake city next week now seems like a necessity, and anything less than three points against Colorado in the season finale would be surefire disaster. And with the exception of last week’s win at Columbus (a result that is looking more and more exceptional), recent history doesn’t provide much in the way of hope that the Timbers will be able to walk the tightrope in front of them.

Just as he did last week, however, Caleb Porter has rallied the troops before. If he does so again in Salt Lake City next weekend, it would again be likely that the Timbers can slip into that sixth playoff spot.

So to say all is lost would be premature, even if it may feel like it at the moment.

But, then again, what is the sixth seed really worth? An away elimination game against the third best team in the West? And, even if the Timbers can pull an upset there, a two-leg date with the top seed?

Hardly a king’s ransom.

With their win in Columbus, the Timbers gave themselves a puncher’s chance to put together a final push into a viable playoff position. But after Saturday’s devastating loss to the Wiz, even if the Timbers are able to squeak into the playoffs that looks more likely than not to be little more than a fool’s errand.

So it’s probably overly dramatic to say the Timbers are finished after their loss to SKC. But at the moment the death knell doesn’t seem very far off.

2. Where did the Timbers go wrong on Saturday?

Although certainly not a new problem, the Timbers’ finishing on Saturday was, well, not sharp. Although Tim Melia certainly made some impressive saves (especially in the first half) the Timbers once again needed to do better in front of goal.

But as poor as the second-half finishing was, the Timbers had already put themselves in a bad spot by halftime.

The team that Sporting Kansas City rolled out in the first half was flat out bad. Although the Wiz occasionally made forays into the Timbers’ end, what happened when they got there was more often comical than threatening.

For the most part, however, Sporting didn’t even have the opportunity to make a mess of things in the final third because the Timbers turned over SKC’s makeshift midfield at will.

This, however, is exactly the kind of thing that a team needs to turn into goals. And while Melia contributed to the Timbers’ inability to do do so, Portland undoubtedly should have created more and, in the end, finished.

Because although SKC didn’t have much in the way of quality on the field, they had plenty of it on the bench. And when, in the second half, Connor Hallisey made way for Graham Zusi and Jacob Peterson turned into Krisztian Nemeth, SKC became orders of magnitude more dangerous on the counterattack.

Combine Sporting’s increased potency with the Timbers’ need to push numbers to find the winning goal, and the Timbers put together a recipe for disaster in the late going. And as spectacular as Nemeth’s winner was, it was precisely the kind of goal that the Timbers were ripe to concede.

The Timbers’ inability to break through in a first half that they otherwise dominated, then, let the shorthanded and tired-legged Wizards off the hook. So, although finishing remained an issue for the Timbers in big moments throughout the game, they really put themselves behind the eight ball by failing to break through early.

3. How big will the offseason overhaul be?

It’s nearing time to start thinking about how active the Timbers will be in the offseason. And although it is probably too early to think too in depth about answering these questions, it is increasingly looking like the Timbers will have some decisions to make after the remainder of the regular season has unfolded.

Will Caleb Porter return as manager? Porter certainly has some feathers in his cap as Timbers coach, but for the most part those feathers date to 2013. Although not all of the Timbers’ problems can be pinned on the manager (Porter, after all, can’t finish the Timbers’ chances for them), it’s hard to look at the defensive woes in 2014 and the attacking malaise of 2015 and not conclude the coach has had a hard time finding a winning balance.

How patient will the Timbers be with their young attacking players? Although both Lucas Melano and Dairon Asprilla have shown flashes of potential, neither has brought anywhere near their expected production value in 2015. This isn’t unprecedented by any means, as foreign signings are notorious for struggling in their first year in MLS, with frequent revelations in year twp. But for a team in desperate need of production, two goals between the Timbers’ two marquee attacking signings simply isn’t enough.

What do the Timbers do with Will Johnson? Two years ago it would have been unfathomable that the Timbers would seriously consider parting ways with their captain. But after a lukewarm 2014 and a difficult return from a broken leg in 2015, the once inconceivable is a legitimate question. Nonetheless, taking a full year to return to form after a leg break isn’t unheard of, so bailing on Johnson now may represent selling low on an asset that could very well recover real value. On the other hand, if his form doesn’t return to near-2013 levels, remaining committed to Johnson as a central figure may only be sending good money after bad.

Finally, will the Timbers reshape their front office? It’s difficult from the outside to pinpoint exactly how things need to change within the Timbers organization (any outsider who says they know exactly how the division of labor works within the Timbers’ brass is lying), but after two consecutive disappointing seasons between the Thorns and Timbers it certainly isn’t unreasonable to question whether fundamental changes are necessary.

At least some of these questions will be determined to some extent by how the next three games (and perhaps more) go. So it’s too early to draw sweeping conclusions here. But more and more this offseason is looking like one in which the Timbers will have to address some difficult issues that will weigh heavily on the future of the franchise.

They’ve done it before. The questions the organization faced after 2012 were certainly more dramatic than those that appear to be on the horizon after 2015. And the cupboard is fuller now than it was then.

But that doesn’t mean it will be easy this time.