Zero wins. Four losses. Eight draws.
That’s Caleb Porter’s record as head coach of the Timbers in March.
In light of the Portland Timbers’ lack of success in the first month of the season, questions about whether Porter has done enough to prepare his team to start MLS play are reasonable. And the Timbers’ record this March has done nothing to dispel those questions.
But a look beyond the results reveals that this 0-for-March isn’t about Caleb Porter failing to put his team in a position to win. Rather, it’s about the players’ failure to execute in key moments and secure results.
Any fair view of the Timbers’ task this March has to start with the key absences: Portland’s talisman playmaker and captain central midfielder have yet to suit up for the Timbers. The magnitude of these absences is hard to overstate. How good would LA Galaxy be without Robbie Keane and Juninho? How about the New England Revolution without Lee Nguyen and Jermaine Jones? Columbus Crew without Federico Higuain and Wil Trapp?
The answer? Not at all good.
The reality is in a salary-cap league like MLS, it is very difficult to cope with the loss of central figures like Diego Valeri and Will Johnson. Within the structure of the rules, teams simply can’t afford the depth necessary to manage major injuries to key players without missing a significant beat.
This isn’t a matter of penny-pinching ownership or front-office malpractice. It’s a matter of the reality of a league-mandated limited salary budget.
So Porter’s challenge in this early season is immense. And through four games his performance in meeting that challenge has been superb. The Timbers have been in position to win three of their first four games, all against 2014 playoff teams.
In the first two games against Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy, Porter was pragmatic. Riddled by injuries in the defensive midfield and lacking their maestro, the Timbers went much more direct than we usually see from Porter teams. As a result, with the exception of 20 bad minutes after halftime against the Galaxy, the Timbers largely controlled both games and were the team that came away disappointed to draw.
At Vancouver on Saturday Porter threw in a new wrinkle, putting Maxi Urruti and Fanendo Adi together up top to press Vancouver’s backline. Although Urruti and Adi’s chemistry was lacking (which explains why Porter hasn’t done this in the past), the change pushed Vancouver’s backline deeper and allowed the Timbers to smother the Whitecaps with attacking-half possession.
And when it became clear that the Adi-Urruti partnership had fallen apart and the Timbers needed a shot in the arm in the final third, Porter introduced Dairon Asprilla as a no-nonsense winger and Gaston Fernandez as a deeper-lying playmaker. As a result, the Timbers became not only the dominant team in possession, but also in chance-creation; creating a goal and two other clear-cut chances that, by all rights, should have allowed the Timbers to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory.
So despite holding a very limited hand in the first month of 2015, Porter has played it shrewdly enough to put his team in position to win games against good teams.
But they haven’t.
Against Real Salt Lake, the Timbers couldn’t find the right combination to beat a sometimes spectacular Nick Rimando and Jamison Olave. That happens, especially early in the season when chances come in handfuls rather than bunches.
The next week against LA Galaxy the Timbers found that combination by way of a Fanendo Adi go-ahead goal in the 90th minute, but failed to sort out their corner-kick marking assignments two minutes later when they stuck Jorge Villafana on Alan Gordon, a matchup Villafana will never win. That’s on the players. Coaches script out set-piece marking assignments before the game, and Villafana is routinely assigned to one of the opponent’s less-dangerous box runners. When substitutions happen it’s largely up to the players to make the adjustments necessary to ensure the best set-piece defenders mark the most dangerous attackers. That didn’t happen against the Galaxy, which is why the Timbers frittered away two points when Gordon beat Villafana and nodded home the late equalizer.
Two weeks later against the Whitecaps, Portland fell behind after Adam Kwarasey failed to make a save on a Nico Mezquida free kick in the early going. It would’ve been a good save, but, frankly, it’s a save a goalkeeper of Kwarasey’s credentials should make. He didn’t.
And then, in second-half stoppage time, Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell, two players who have been among Portland’s most consistent performers thus far in 2015, failed to routinely cut out a Pedro Morales pass that resulted in Robert Earnshaw being in on goal for the Whitecaps unjust winner. Did Alvas Powell err by falling a half-step too deep and holding Earnshaw offside? Yes. But that doesn’t excuse the two centerbacks who committed the soccer equivalent of two outfielders watching a routine pop fly fall in between them.
After the game in Vancouver I asked Borchers and Ridgewell if they were concerned about a pattern of dropping points as a result of execution breakdowns late in games. Both said they weren't.
Many of the mistakes for which the Timbers have paid most dearly scream mental lapses well below the quality of otherwise good players. And they’re happening at the worst possible time in games.
The game plans have been good enough. The players are good enough. If those things were lacking the team simply wouldn’t have been in a position to earn the results they’ve squandered four games into 2015. But the players are letting their coach and themselves down with late-game failures that belie their preparation and quality.
Porter can't hold Borchers and Ridgewell’s hands while they cut out Morales’s pass. Porter can’t call timeout after LA Galaxy puts Gordon on the field to make sure his players are making the right adjustments in set-piece marking.
Instead, it’s the players that need to take responsibility for executing in the moments that determine whether the team will maximize its points or let the result pass them by. Because 0-for-March is still 0-for-March even if the manager isn’t primarily to blame.
And if 0-for-March turns into 0-for-April again, the Timbers will have dug themselves into the same hole they couldn’t climb out of in 2014.
But this time it’s not on Caleb Porter. It’s on the players.