After one preseason game at Providence Park, early 2015 looks a lot like early 2014. With two weeks before the start of the regular season, here are three lingering questions after the Timbers’ 1-0 loss to Vancouver.
1. Can the Timbers once again wait until April to start scoring goals?
For all the (justifiable) talk about defense in 2014, one storyline that got lost among the mid- and late-season drama was the Timbers’ attack limping out of the gate. The month of March in 2014 was unkind to the Timbers’ offense, as they generated only three goals in four games (including a Matt Hedges own goal) while struggling to create genuine chances despite holding their fair share of the ball. At times in early 2014 the Timbers looked too reluctant to pull the trigger and at times they looked too eager to do so. The end result of Portland’s palpable discomfort in the box, however, was disappointing results against teams the Timbers looked otherwise capable of beating.
The first half at Providence Park on Sunday was highly reminiscent of this time last year. The Timbers held plenty of the ball, got into good spots on the outside of the final third, but couldn’t find the winning combinations in and around the box. It’s a familiar problem for the Timbers, and one that needs fixing before too many points slip away.
2. How do the Timbers move forward without Ben Zemanski?
The Timbers losing anybody to a season-threatening injury in a preseason game would have been bad. Although far from the most recognizable name on the roster, however, Zemanski may have been the player the Timbers could least afford to lose. But that’s exactly what happened on Sunday.
Zemanski’s 23rd-minute injury certainly didn’t look good at the time, and after the game Caleb Porter confirmed the worst fears of those watching: Ben Zemanski suffered a torn ACL.
The loss of Zemanski forces the Timbers into difficult choices for the first spell of the season with Will Johnson still expected to be out for at least another month. Although the Timbers went with utilityman Jack Jewsbury to finish the game on Sunday, it’s far from clear that is the option going forward. Rookie Nick Besler and George Fochive may be options in Zemanski and Johnson’s stead, but postgame Porter also hinted at the possibility of a systemic shift to a single holding midfielder.
Such a tactical shift, however, would be the biggest variation from the Timbers’ system in Porter’s two-year tenure. Although Porter has employed a variety of tweaks in his time at the helm, one hallmark of his approach has been using two defensive central midfielders. Although the other options may not be much more attractive, it’s hard to see Porter abandoning that aspect of his system even in the interim.
Whatever the Timbers choose, however, the situation is clearly far from ideal, as a season-opening spell already without Diego Valeri and Will Johnson just got much more complex.
3. Can Caleb Porter avoid another March malaise?
This question isn’t a new one, but it has never been more important.
Caleb Porter’s record as coach of the Timbers in the month of March isn’t good. With three losses, five draws, and zero wins to his name over the past two seasons, Porter has yet to prove he can have his team ready for the first month of the season. In 2013 the slow start didn’t hurt the Timbers too badly as the tepid March was more than overshadowed by an unbeaten run that stretched over the next three months.
But in 2014 the Timbers’ slow start (which bled into April) was fatal. Despite earning solid results through much of the summer before catching fire in the fall, the Timbers underachieved in the final table, missing the playoffs and finishing well behind preseason expectations. In the final analysis, the reason was simple: the Timbers’ spring struggles.
Although the defense looks steadier than it did at this point last year, the attack looks equally unsettled and the Timbers’ injury list is certainly worse. Asked whether the issue is weighing on his mind, Porter was characteristically deadpan: "No. I mean, it’s not something I’m going to think about every day and worry about. We’re going to take one game at a time and be focused on the first game and getting three points. That’s the only thing that weighs on my mind - getting three points in that first game."
Despite his outward stoicism, however, the fact remains that Porter has to prove he can put a winning team on the field out of the gates. It’s great to have the team playing its best soccer in October, but if recent history has taught the Timbers anything it’s that the first game in March matters just as much as the last one in the fall. And with the Western Conference only becoming more competitive, it’s hard to imagine the Timbers finding ultimate success if they can’t at least keep the pace early on.
But in spite of the manifest importance of evading another stumble out of the gates, the task of avoiding a third consecutive slow start under Porter looks to be getting more and more difficult by the day. Pay no mind to the conventional wisdom concerning the early portion of the season; the next month may be the most important stretch of Caleb Porter’s MLS coaching tenure to date.