For the second time in the last three years, the Portland Timbers are on their way to the Western Conference Final.
It hasn’t always been pretty for the Timbers in 2015. There have been a lot of moments, including as recently as a month ago, in which the Timbers looked for all the world to be on the outs.
But for a turnaround so dramatic, this Timbers team is oddly businesslike. And so it was on Sunday. The Timbers came into BC Place, took care of business, and stamped their ticket to the Western Conference Final along the way.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ 2-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps:
1. How did that seem so easy?
There was something a little bit unusual about the Timbers’ locker room after the game.
Yes, there was music. But otherwise signs of jubilation were few and far between. After a series win, baseball teams break out the champagne showers and beer slip-and-slides.
The Timbers? Well, they took their showers, got dressed, and got on the bus.
And that’s pretty much how the game went, too.
From extra time in Columbus to penalties in Dallas, Sunday was as action-packed a day as the MLS Playoffs have produced. And, coming into the game on a scoreless draw, the table was set for more fireworks at BC Place.
And there were fireworks of the literal kind to open the game. But metaphorical fireworks? Nah.
The Timbers walked into BC Place on Sunday and, in front of a record crowd, ho-hummed their way into the Western Conference Final by finding an early goal and never yielding control of the game from there.
Certainly Kekuta Manneh’s injury took the wind out of the Whitecaps' sails, as the speedy winger was Vancouver’s biggest threat until exiting with an ankle injury. But once the Timbers’ found their goal the typically counterattack-happy Caps had to push the game. The Timbers, for their part, were nonplussed.
Seemingly everything Vancouver threw forward crashed meekly at the feet of Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe, who dominated the middle of the field and forced the Whitecaps wide to lump hopeful balls into the Timbers’ organized box.
How did the Timbers handle that?
Well, about the same way they handled the postgame locker room. With a shrug.
Which brings us to a larger point that ties together the Timbers’ almost casual win on Sunday, the stunning fall turnaround that took the Timbers from outside the playoff picture to the Western Conference Final, and that postgame locker room: This Timbers team has a pretty unusual steadiness to it.
Ask Timbers players why things have turned around so dramatically in the past month and you’ll get a writer’s nightmare -- answers that boil down to a whole lot of nothing. Some will give the usual cliches; they’ve responded under pressure, they’ve stepped up in big moments, they’re peaking at the right time, yada, yada, yada. But, for the most part, the answer is nothing.
Sure, the team is playing with confidence right now. And they’re also probably playing the best balanced soccer we have seen from a Timbers team at least since 2013.
But as far as what changed? Meh.
No players-only locker room meeting. No thrown chairs. No yelling and screaming from coaches or captains.
Just moving onto what’s next. Like Sunday's locker room. And like the 90 minutes in front of 27,000 frustrated Whitecaps fans that preceded the locker room.
For the Timbers, it turns out, what’s next is the Western Conference Finals.
2. Is it time to give Darlington Nagbe a new number?
Caleb Porter thinks so.
Everybody played well. But Darlington -- it wasn’t even just his attacking. His defending. You’ve probably got the stats . . . but how many balls did he win? He won a lot of balls today. So he’s proven to be one of the better number eights -- box-to-box mids -- in the league, which is exciting.
The answer, Caleb, is nine.
Nagbe had nine recoveries on Sunday, which, coincidentally, is tied for ninth in Nagbe’s career. And looking down the list of games in which Nagbe has posted his highest recoveries numbers reveals a pattern: Five of Nagbe’s top 15 single-game recoveries totals have come since September. And two of those have been in the 2015 playoffs (with the third playoff game tied for 16th).
Which is to say this: World, meet Darlington Nagbe; full-time number eight.
3. Is Fanendo Adi going to keep getting better?
If he does, it could get scary.
Yes, Adi scored another goal on Sunday. And it was a big one, as it put the Manneh-less Whitecaps on the ropes and needing two goals to advance.
The goal, however, wasn’t the half of Adi’s performance on Sunday. In Kendall Waston and should-be Rookie of the Year finalist Tim Parker, the Whitecaps have among the better central-defense tandems in MLS. There is a reason this Whitecaps team allowed a league-fewest 36 goals in 2015. But on Sunday Parker and Waston lost their battle with Adi.
In addition to his goal on Sunday, Adi logged an assist, five chances created, and a bushel of 50-50s won and balls held up.
While answering a question about Nagbe after the game, Caleb Porter turned his attention to Adi:
Adi, I thought, it was one of his best games of the year the way he held the ball up against probably the best central defender in the league.
Simply put, there aren’t a lot of strikers in MLS who could do that against Vancouver. And, although he's has been generally good for the Timbers since his arrival last summer, even Adi probably couldn’t have done what he did on Sunday until recently.
In Adi right now the Timbers have a striker who is dominant physical presence who surprises defenders with his pace, holds the ball up as well as anybody in the league, distributes effectively in the attack, and finishes regularly with both feet.
In other words, Adi is the complete package right now. And considering his trajectory to date, I don’t think we can put a ceiling on the Timbers’ number nine just yet.