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Three Questions from the Timbers’ 0-0 Draw with SKC

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The Portland Timbers walked out of Sporting Park with a point in hand after drawing a game in which aesthetically pleasing football was hard to come by.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The purist would have hated the Portland Timbers’ 0-0 draw with Sporting Kansas City at Sporting Park on Saturday evening. Under most circumstances, the pragmatist would have appreciated it.

But in the context of the last two years, and especially 2014, the smile that normally comes with an away draw against a playoff-contending conference opponent is tinged with a little bit of a grimace. Because the game was on the road against a quality opponent, the fact that Saturday night was the Timbers’ least inspirational performance of the young season is no surprise. On Saturday the Timbers were, by just about any objective measure, acceptable.

Nonetheless, for a history-burdened club that is bordering on desperate for three points despite the infancy of the regular season, Saturday’s draw left something to be desired. Here are three questions coming out of the Timbers draw with SKC:

1. Are the Timbers any better than average right now?

No.

The good news, however, is that appears to be the same answer for the other side of this coin. And in being average right now, the Timbers are strong in the ways that they were weak in 2014. With the defense performing well in almost every way and the eventual return on Diego Valeri and Will Johnson promising to add considerable potency to an attack that has been inconsistent (though not altogether impotent), all indications right now are that the full-strength Timbers will be a force to be reckoned with.

Even early in the season, two clean sheets out of three games is a positive sign. Perhaps more important, however, with one exception we’ll discuss momentarily, the Timbers have not yielded many chances in their three games despite playing three teams with quality attacking talent.

It remains to be seen whether the Timbers will keep from digging themselves into a hole before Johnson and Valeri return to fitness (they’ll certainly need at least a couple wins to do so), but if the Timbers' goal in the first couple months of the MLS season is simply to stay afloat, the performances they’ve put in appear sufficient to give them a chance to do so.

So, although the Timbers may not be anything more than average at this point, the way they’re playing right now suggests they could be quite good when at full strength and may currently be capable of treading water in the interim.

2. Will the Timbers continue to struggle to defend set pieces?

The Achilles’ heel of the Timbers’ defense right now is by far set-piece defending. After an opening stage of the game in which the Wizards were able to make some run-of-play magic, the Timbers largely shut down SKC with the ball in play. Nonetheless, the set-piece defending that caused the Timbers to lose two points against the Galaxy nearly let them down again against the Wiz.

The Timbers had trouble defending set pieces set pieces throughout, but especially struggled in a second half in which Jalil Anibaba and Ike Opara each had free headers in the box that could (and probably should) have been the Wizards’ opener and likely winner.

If this is the one blemish on an otherwise solid defense, Caleb Porter can probably live with that in the longterm. Once humming along, this Timbers attack will easily overcome this defensive deficiency. But until the Timbers start banging in the goals, this seems likeliest to rob Portland of valuable points, as it did against the Galaxy and almost did again at Kansas City.

3. Can Caleb Porter win in March?

Certainly not an unfamiliar refrain at this point, but the question lives on after the Timbers’ draw in Kansas. At 0-3-8, Porter only has only one more opportunity to put 0-for-March to bed before it haunts him into 2016.

Although the Timbers will not have fallen far below the red line by Week Four with their three draws, if the winless streak lasts much longer Portland will be staring 2014 straight in the face. This has been the danger ever since Johnson went down in Toronto and Valeri tore his ACL in 2014’s final stomach-punch.

But the fact that the Timbers have significant adversity to manage early in the season doesn’t as sympathetic a tale as it would have absent the prior two years of history.

While it is hard to argue the Timbers have played poorly to start the season, results are results. And, adversity and promising performances notwithstanding, Caleb Porter’s Timbers teams have a still-growing track record of not getting results early in the year.