Well, it all evens out in the end, I guess.
After dropping points throughout March in games they should have won, the Portland Timbers took all three points from a game at Yankee Stadium that could only charitably be described as ugly.
Here are three questions coming out of Sunday’s win in New York City:
1. Can Sunday be the start of Adam Kwarasey turning a corner?
It wasn’t a perfect performance, but on the whole Sunday was quite a good one for Adam Kwarasey. A number of times this season Kwarasey hadn’t come to the Timbers rescue when they needed a stop from the Ghanaian goalkeeper, in particular conceding a savable free kick to Nicolas Mezquida and giving up a poor penalty to seal the loss to Orlando City.
Not so on Sunday evening, however, with Kwarasey’s late kick save of Khiry Shelton after the former Beaver beat Liam Ridgewell and broke through on goal being perhaps Kwarasey’s best stop of the season.
In a season in which Kwarasey has at times seemed a little bit uncomfortable and short on confidence, a solid performance to preserve three points in the Bronx could be just what Kwarasey needs to become the man in goal the Timbers were hoping they signed in the winter.
2. Is there anybody out there who still doesn’t think going direct can be a nice tool for the Timbers?
NYCFC came out to press and press hard. And for the first half-hour or so of the game, the Timbers had a whale of a time breaking the Citizens’ press.
As NYCFC committed three, four, or even at times five men to winning the ball back in the Timbers’ defending half, Portland tried unsuccessfully to build out of the back to break the press. The result was a gaggle of turnovers in and near the Timbers’ own half and, at least for the first 30 minutes of the game, a feeling that the Timbers were under almost constant pressure.
But in the second half, the Timbers released their attacking midfielders a little bit and went much more direct. The result? Far fewer NYCFC defensive interventions in and near the Timbers’ own half and night-and-day better chance creation.
The guy who benefitted the most was Darlington Nagbe, who went from zero chances-created and zero successful dribbles in the first half to four chances-created and seven - SEVEN!!! - successful dribbles after the break. In short, in the face of very high NYCFC pressure, the Timbers went direct in the second half and Darlington Nagbe took over the game.
Like, really took over the game.
A lot has been made of the Timbers’ directness early this season, with many wondering wether Caleb Porter has abandoned the possession-based formula he brought to MLS. Although we won’t know until the Timbers are fully healthy, I doubt this represents a longterm shift as much as an adaptation to the limited personnel presently available.
But as the second half on Sunday showed, the Timbers are starting to get fairly effective at it even when, like Sunday, they aren’t necessarily playing their best. So, even if Porter goes back to something more like what the Timbers have shown in the past as their primary approach to games, the directness the Timbers have shown at times through much of this early season is a nice tool to have on the belt for circumstances, like Sunday, in which opponents come to press.
3. If, before the season, somebody offered you nine points for the Timbers through seven games, would you have taken it?
I probably would have. Not very enthusiastically. But I probably would have taken it.
The first couple months of this season had unmitigated disaster written all over them for the Timbers. No Diego Valeri. No Will Johnson. No Ben Zemanski. A difficult schedule. A history of starting slow.
But it hasn’t been a disaster. Nine points through seven games certainly doesn’t light the world on fire, but it’s more than double what Portland had at this point last year and puts the Timbers in a five-team logjam in the middle-ish of the Western Conference.
Without a doubt it has been a frustrating start to the season. If Portland had finished off the wins they probably should have against Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy, and Vancouver, the Timbers would be sitting atop MLS with 16 points.
But, aside from a faceplant against Orlando City that can’t be altogether dismissed in any fair analysis, the frustration with the Timbers so far hasn’t been that they haven’t met expectations. It’s that they’ve only met expectations when for much of the season’s first two months they have seemed capable of much, much more.
To be sure, the Timbers have a lot of work to do to get where they need to be by the end of the season. But with Valeri and Johnson’s returns seemingly on the horizon, the Timbers have put themselves in position to survive the early-season absence of two of their central figures in midfield.
And in reality survival was always the aspiration this spring.