The Portland Timbers notched their first win in the Simple Invitational since 2012, as a 31st-minute Fanendo Adi goal was all the Timbers needed to beat Stabæk. As always in preseason, however, the performance is more important than the result, and after the game Caleb Porter was pleased with his team’s effort, calling it the best outing the Timbers have had this preseason.
Although the Timbers answered a few of the questions lingering over the Rose City against De Blaa, others remain. Even if the Timbers didn’t always fully capitalize, their chance-creation was markedly improved from their performances against Chicago Fire and the Vancouver Whitecaps. They still have a ways to go to rediscover the net-blazing form they had through the summer and fall of 2014, but the Timbers were noticeably more dangerous against Stabæk than previously in the Simple Invitational.
Improved chance-creation notwithstanding, however, here are three more questions coming out of the Simple Invitational finale.
1. Will the Timbers’ defensive midfield be good enough to keep MLS opponents off the scoreboard?
A central-midfield combination of Jack Jewsbury and Blair Gavin isn’t exactly the tandem the Timbers planned to deploy in 2015. And in all likelihood it won’t be the combination the Timbers roll out against Real Salt Lake in the planned home opener next weekend. But with Will Johnson recovering from a broken leg, Diego Chara carrying a niggling injury, Ben Zemanski awaiting surgery on a torn ACL, and George Fochive oddly suspended from a preseason game, Jewsbury-Gavin was the partnership du jour on Saturday.
The fact remains, then, that we haven’t recently seen the presumptive opening-day pair of Jewsbury and Chara together heading into the regular season - an uncomfortable prospect for a team that has relied heavily on central-midfield dominance in recent years.
Nonetheless, both Chara and Jewsbury are known quantities in Portland and Porter praised Jewsbury’s performance on Saturday. If, as he did on Saturday, Jewsbury is able to hold down his holding midfield spot until Johnson returns, the Timbers may come through the major injury crisis in their engine room relatively unscathed.
That "if," however, looms large over the Timbers’ early-season prospects.
2. Are there any more questions about Fanendo Adi’s place as the first-choice striker?
After what had been to this point a little bit of an up-and-down preseason for Adi, the Nigerian nine was the best player on the field Saturday. Adi dominated aerial ball-winning, imposed his will with the ball at his feet, and distributed brilliantly in the attack.
Oh, and he notched the winner. That’s good, too.
Without Diego Valeri in the lineup for the first couple months of the season, the Timbers will need Adi to be that dominant force leading the line, occupying central defenders, and putting away chances. After showing only flashes of that earlier in preseason, Adi was all of it Saturday evening.
And that’s a very good sign for the Timbers.
3. Is this the level we can come to expect from the Timbers’ central defense?
If so, the Timbers may be able to withstand a little bit of a slow offensive start. Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers bossed the game in the Timbers’ defensive end on Saturday, limiting Stabæk to a handful of half-chances and a couple of fluke opportunities cleaned up by increasingly solid goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey.
Although playing against a level of competition a half-step down from what they’ll face in the MLS Western Conference on Saturday, the backline didn’t have the easiest time. Although the defensive midfield held its shape, without Diego Chara it was noticeably worse in the ball-winning department. The result was a fair amount of possession from Stabæk within thirty yards of the Timbers’ goal.
Despite playing more of the game one bad step away from trouble than they’re used to, however, the Timbers backline hardly put a foot wrong under Borchers and Ridgewell’s leadership. And, as Caleb Porter pointed out in his postgame press conference, the pair was very solid against Vancouver last Sunday, as well.
Porter made no bones about what he thinks of his defense after the game. "I’m okay if we get a clean sheet every game and score one goal," Porter said, "Merritt [Paulson] might want more goals, but I think he’ll take the wins over the goals any day."
Although the attack looked better on Saturday, it clearly has some work ahead of it before it will produce like it did in 2014. If the past two games are representative of the defensive fortitude Ridgewell and Borchers bring to central defense, however, the Timbers may be able to squeak out enough results even with an offense yet to hit on all cylinders. And if the offense can get back to its 2014 form, a backline of the rigidity the Timbers seem to be foreshadowing could propel Portland beyond expectations.
But in the interim, Porter seems fine relying on his defense. He may have to.