Déjà vu in the Rose City.
Last fall Real Salt Lake kept the Portland Timbers out of the playoffs by scratching a 0-0 draw out of a game in which the Timbers were thoroughly dominant. Those Timbers outshot the Claret-and-Cobalt 23-13, put seven shots on target to RSL’s three, and were only kept out by a seemingly impossible flying Nick Rimando save.
Fast forward to Saturday night and, well, the numbers changed slightly, but the story was nearly identical. The Timbers fired 18 shots to RSL’s 9, put six on frame to Real’s two, and were again only kept off the scoresheet by Nick Rimando denying at an arm’s length a point-blank shot from Rodney Wallace.
Here are three questions coming out of the re-run of the Timbers’ late-2014 draw against RSL:
1. Is this performance a harbinger of the Timbers’ attack starting to hit its stride?
It’s a funny thing to ask after being blanked at home, but the Timbers attack created more chances than it had at any point in preseason and, with the exception of the 4-4 draw against Seattle last April, at any point in the first two months of 2014.
After the game, Caleb Porter was almost effusive when discussing his attack. "I thought against a very good team we were, in terms of performance, the flow, and chances, we were the better team," Porter said, "We didn’t find the goal, but we created more than we have created in any of the games in preseason."
Despite being much more direct than many of Porter’s previous Timbers teams, Portland was dangerous around goal -creating at least three clear-cut chances along with a bevy of half-chances. In the end, it took an Asprilla header that flashed just wide, Rimando making a save no other goalkeeper in MLS could make, and Jamison Olave clearing a ball off the line in the waning minutes to keep the Timbers off the board.
The Timbers’ attack won’t be firing on all cylinders until Will Johnson and Diego Valeri return to the lineup. But if Saturday is any indication, Portland’s patchwork offense may be prolific enough to carry the Timbers through the early season.
2. Is it too early to say the Timbers have a championship-caliber defense?
Yes, but that shouldn’t stop us from recognizing their performance.
The final third was a virtual dead zone for the Claret-and-Cobalt on Saturday evening. Numerous times RSL carried the ball to the edge of the danger zone only to be denied entry into the area as the Timbers’ defense choked off almost everything going into the box.
Perhaps most impressive, the Timbers did this playing Jack Jewsbury and George Fochive, respectively fourth and fifth on the defensive-central-midfield depth chart, in place of a trio of injured Timbers. Both Fochive and Jewsbury were more than capable of filling in on Saturday, which was an especially impressive feat for Fochive making his first MLS appearance. But the stars once again were the Timbers’ centerbacks, who put in a near-perfect performance in keeping things tight in the box and, perhaps more importantly, by aggressively stepping up to disrupt RSL in their buildup.
So while it may be too early to call the Timbers’ defense championship-caliber, it isn’t a stretch to say if the defense can hold its season-opening form throughout the year, the Timbers are likely heading back into the Western Conference elite.
3. Can Caleb Porter win in March?
Although a manifestly unfair question after his team turned in their best March performance of his tenure, the fact remains that Porter has still won none of his nine games in what has been his biggest bugaboo of a month. If the team’s performance on Saturday is any indication, the Timbers appear poised to shake the season-opening monkey off their backs in short order. But Porter’s 0-for-March record will remain, and the question will linger, until the Timbers finally put away an opponent before April.