What a difference three days make.
Juxtaposed against the Portland Timbers’ nerve-shredding penalty-kick win over Sporting Kansas City on Thursday, Sunday’s 0-0 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps was a relative walk in the park.
And although the result could have been a little bit better, the Timbers head to Vancouver next weekend with everything to play for.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ draw with the Whitecaps:
1. How should we feel about the result?
A little bit frustrated, but overall pretty good.
Although Caleb Porter was insistent at training on Saturday that fatigue would not be an issue against the Whitecaps, the reality is the 120 minutes that the Timbers put on their legs (not to mentions the years taken off their fans’ lives) on Thursday made it so the Timbers couldn’t afford Sunday’s affair to open up into an end-to-end affair.
And the Timbers did a good job of keeping the game compact and under control, holding 62% of the ball and stringing 486 passes through the Whitecaps’ midfield. Although Vancouver found a few spaces in the channels in the first half that caused problems for the Timbers’ backline, there was virtually nothing for the Whitecaps in the second half when the Timbers’ legs should have become an issue.
So, from a tactical perspective, the Timbers got more or less what they needed out of the game.
Still, in the last half hour the Timbers were by far the more likely team to convert with a Diego Valeri free kick palmed heroically away by David Ousted and an 89th-minute Maxi Urruti shot that beat the Great Dane but tantalizingly came off the inside of the post.
Simply put, the goal was there for the Timbers and it would’ve been massive. But it just didn’t come. And that is a familiar frustration for Timbers fans.
Nonetheless, the scoreless draw puts the Timbers in a good position to advance next weekend in Vancouver. The Timbers have been very good on the road recently, winning each of their last three road games by a combined score of 8-3. Moreover, the MLS Timbers have historically been excellent in Vancouver, going 3-1-2 in their six MLS matches at BC Place and never having been shut out on the banks of False Creek.
In other words, of the six games the MLS Timbers have played in Rain City, five of those results would be good enough to put the Timbers through to the Western Conference Finals next week.
History, of course, is not a perfect predictor of the future. And the Timbers certainly would have liked to leave Providence Park on Sunday evening with a goal to the good.
But on the whole, it’s hard to be too disappointed with the performance or the result for the Timbers. Whether it was enough, however, will be determined at BC Place.
2. Is it Darlington Nagbe’s world and we’re all just living in it?
On Sunday it was.
Although Nagbe didn’t dominate the final third like he did against Colorado in the regular-season finale, Sunday’s game, and especially the second half, belonged to Nagbe.
The Timbers came into Sunday looking to deploy Nagbe deeper than they had in either of the previous two games to help hold the ball, keep the game compact, and leave Vancouver few spaces to counter into.
In the first half, however, the Timbers were forced to go direct by a Whitecaps team that came out looking to press a little bit, likely to test the Timbers’ legs. Accordingly, as Caleb Porter noted postgame, Nagbe had to push on a little bit to find the ball.
In the second half, however, the Timbers dropped Nagbe in alongside Jack Jewsbury and let Darlington control the midfield. And that he did.
For the game, Nagbe completed 77 passes, racked up 8 successful dribbles, 9 recoveries, and 3 tackles won. But in the second half in particular, Nagbe completed 43 passes, more than 17 of the other players on the field had for the entire game.
Nagbe’s two-way dominance after halftime played a huge role in allowing the Timbers to put their foot on the game and push for a decisive goal without opening themselves up to the Whitecaps' counterattack.
And for a player who just a few weeks ago was being criticized for being limited to helping the team in transition, Nagbe’s emergence as a do-it-all midfielder in the past month is one of the most exciting prospects for the Timbers out of a stretch of play that hasn’t lacked for positive developments.
3. Why has Dairon Asprilla suddenly flipped a switch?
A few weeks ago I just didn’t know about Asprilla. His appearances off the bench were increasingly anonymous, and his presence on the team sheet was increasingly tenuous.
And yet, since the game against Colorado, Asprilla has been one of the Timbers’ most impactful players. With an assist (and almost a goal) in the regular-season finale, another assist in extra time and a converted penalty against Sporting Kansas City, and a shot-in-the-arm performance against the Whitecaps on Sunday, Asprilla has suddenly returned to the super-sub form that the Timbers hoped to see from him to start the season.
Exactly what gave rise to this turnaround is hard to say from the outside. Asked about Asprilla after the game on Sunday, Caleb Porter meandered around the issue a little bit. But eventually, as he often does, he got to the point.
I think he’s starting to get bought in. I think he’s starting to really figure it out here. It’s a really tough transition for guys to come in overseas and learn English, and figure out what’s going on. It’s like you’re watching a television screen with no sound and you’re trying to figure out what they’re saying. That’s him every day. And he’s kind of an introverted guy, as well, so I think he’s just starting to get settled and get bought in and like living here and comfortable.
It doesn’t hurt when he has to fight for things and, you know, initially I think when he wasn’t playing he got frustrated. And ultimately he’s realized he’s gotta go in and do a job and that’s what he’s been doing, which will mean that now he’ll get more and more time and, who knows, maybe eventually start. That’s how it works.
Asprilla was a notable and healthy scratch from the Timbers’ wins at Salt Lake and Los Angeles, and in the Timbers’ visit to Sandy, Utah, Asprilla didn’t even make the 18-man roster. Since that road trip, however, the winger has been lights out.
Porter has been known to do sit players down from time to time, and almost always to good effect. Alvas Powell’s brief loan down to USL last year is largely credited as a wakeup call for the young right back that launched him to a torrid finish to 2014. After a little bit of a rough stretch earlier this fall Porter sat Fanendo Adi against the New York Red Bulls. Adi responded by scoring five goals in the next four games.
And so maybe Asprilla’s recent resurgence is another example of Porter’s man-management prowess.
Porter’s tactical acumen and philosophy has been the most discussed aspect of the Timbers’ manager’s coaching record. I think it is fair to say that Porter’s track record in that respect has been generally positive, but not without blemishes. There have been times during the Porter Era in which his team was too stretched and aggressive as well as times when it was too compact and pragmatic. Simply put, the Timbers have struggled (although not without some considerable success) to find the right tactical balance during the last three years.
But perhaps Porter’s biggest success as Timbers coach has been his ability to manage the locker room. From his ability to rally the team after disappointment to his ability to push the right buttons with players, Porter’s man-management approach has clearly worked during his tenure in the Rose City.
And in Asprila’s most recent renaissance it appears were seeing that bear fruit for the club once again.