Four games into 2015, this Portland Timbers team is remarkable. As good as the Timbers were at salvaging a point out of a game in which they probably didn’t deserve it last March, this Timbers team might be even better at fumbling away points they do deserve.
The good news is the Timbers are a better team than they were last March. The bad news is that hasn’t paid any noteworthy dividends in the table through four fixtures.
For the second time in three games, the Timbers conceded a goal against the run of play in second-half stoppage time to lose points. Instead of turning a win into a draw, as they did two weeks ago against LA Galaxy, the Timbers turned a draw into a deflating first loss at BC Place.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ 2-1 loss to the Whitecaps:
1. Have the Timbers maxed out their ability to squander points?
By every measure except one, the Timbers absolutely dominated this game. Portland strung together 510 passes and completed 88% of them, held 65% of the ball, whipped 47 crosses into the box (to Vancouver’s 7), and forced Vancouver into 40 defensive actions in their own box to the Timbers' 15.
Although Portland lacked some precision in the final third and settled too easily for deep crosses (see the 47 crosses), they were by far the more dangerous team on Saturday evening. And after equalizing in the 82nd minute by way of another Fanendo Adi goal, the Timbers looked miles likelier to be team to take the points from Vancouver.
"I thought this was probably our best performance in the four games," Porter said postgame. "We looked more like the dominant team that we’ve been in the past, which is a real positive because we don’t have Diego Valeri and Will Johnson, who are two of our guys that help us dominate and control games."
That one measure that stuck in the Timbers’ craw, however, was goals - and conceding them late is becoming a pattern that appears very close to putting the Timbers behind the same eight-ball they couldn’t get out from behind in 2014.
"I don’t know how we don’t win, to be honest with you," Porter lamented afterward. "I really don’t."
While Porter’s incredulousness at the loss is certainly understandable in light of the flow of the game, the harsh reality is such dropped points look to be standard operating procedure for this Timbers team.
And unless that changes, the 2015 may be heading in the same direction as 2014.
2. Will we see Fanendo Adi and Maxi Urruti start together again soon?
We’ll see, but their debut was only so-so.
Starting the Timbers’ two strikers together was an interesting wrinkle Porter threw into the lineup. Asked after the game about this assessment of the move, Porter was measured: "I thought they had some good moments. We were able to put pressure on their backline. But I still think we need to work on their connection - linking up."
What little chemistry Adi and Urruti had in the first half entirely disappeared in the early going of the second half, as Urruti floated wide to the left wing while Adi stayed central. If you’re playing with two true forwards, they can’t become disconnected. And that’s exactly what happened in the second half, leading to Urruti getting the hook after 65 minutes.
But if Adi and Urruti proved they need work before they’re ready to click together, Gaston Fernandez and Dairon Asprilla gave Caleb Porter reason to think they can contribute meaningfully to the attack.
Asprilla brought a measure of ruthlessness to the game that the Timbers attack had been missing - looking to run at defenders and take the ball into the box rather than out wide as Portland had settled for to that point. After the game, Porter agreed Asprilla is most threatening off the bench at this point, even if Porter hopes he can grow back into a starting role.
More relevant to Porter’s selection of a starting eleven next week, however, was Fernandez’s performance and the role he filled. When La Gata came on the field for defensive midfielder George Fochive in the 75th minute, I expected Porter to push Fernandez into a second forward role above an attacking midfield of Rodney Wallace, Nagbe, and Asprilla.
Instead, however, Porter deployed Fernandez in a deeper role than he usually does, which allowed La Gata to dictate tempo from an inverted-triangle central midfield while the Timbers pushed for the equalizer with three true forwards up top. With firepower on the frontline and Darlington Nagbe giving the Whitecaps’ defensive midfield nightmares once again, Fernandez’s distribution from a deeper-lying position was nearly perfect. The result was plays like this.
Seriously, watch that play on repeat. It won’t erase the bitter memory of Saturday evening, but if you love soccer it will help a little bit.
Fernandez’s influence, in particular, should present a more attractive option for Porter in the short term than Urruti and Adi up top. I don’t think Porter can look to invert the midfield triangle for a full game like he did in the final fifteen minutes against Vancouver because it leaves too much space around Diego Chara. But starting Fernandez at the point of a traditional triangle with Wallace, Adi, and a pinched-in Nagbe above him (and Powell providing width to Fernandez's right) could create a similar dynamic for La Gata while maintaining a defensive balance the Timbers can sustain over the course of a game.
So, even though the Adi and Urruti experiment looks like it needs more refining before it’s truly viable, Fernandez’s play in a deeper position than that which he has started from in the past presents an interesting option for the Timbers going forward.
3. Can Caleb Porter win in March?
At 0-4-8, the question will linger into a fourth year.
Here, watch this again.