The monkey is off their back.
Just as they did in 2013, the Timbers noticed their first three-pointer in the fifth game of the season at home against a team from Texas. And just as the Timbers’ 2-0 defeat of the Houston Dynamo felt like a turning point for the debutante Porter and his upstart Timbers, Saturday night’s win over the Hoops feels like it could be the start of the Timbers turning good performances into good results for the 2015 squad.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ first victory of 2015:
1. Have the Timbers improved in tight games?
It may be a matter of sample size, but the Valeri-less Timbers appear to thrive in tight, ugly games. Against Real Salt Lake in the season opener, the Timbers abandoned their typical attractive approach and went very direct in a game without considerable midfield oxygen. Although the Timbers couldn’t break through on March 7th, they dominated the game and limited the Claret-and-Cobalt to a handful of half-chances while being unlucky not to find the winner themselves.
It was much of the same against FC Dallas on Saturday. Against an aggressive FC Dallas team that stated its intent early with a David Texeira elbow to the nose of Liam Ridgewell, the Timbers showed once again they can thrive even when things aren’t going exactly to plan. Although Texeira’s elbow represented the most egregious example of the Burn’s physicality, Dallas was more than happy to ugly up the game in the middle and earn 17 fouls along the way.
In a game short on aesthetics, FC Dallas’s aggressiveness did little to quell the Timbers’ dangerousness. Although the Timbers didn’t create chances in bunches, they were the more dangerous team from the run of play by some distance, a point that was punctuated by two second-half goals, the first of which was a particularly well worked marked by a patented Darlington Nagbe run and Maxi Urruti flicked finish.
The Timbers have struggled at times over the past couple years when opponents tighten up the game. But so far in 2015, the Timbers have put in a couple pretty good performances under the circumstances in which they have historically had a little bit of trouble.
And, for the first time this year, on Saturday they were rewarded with the full three points.
2. Is set-piece defending still a problem?
Based on the first half on Saturday, yes.
In the opening half against FC Dallas, the Timbers once again struggled with set-piece defending. On multiple free- and corner kicks the Timbers lost track of runners, which was most notable on their sole concession of the game, when not one, not two, but three Dallas attackers sprung free from their markers. Although FC Dallas is certainly a good set-piece team, and the Timbers are hardly the first team to fall victim to the Burn’s deadball prowess, in light of Portland’s immediate and remote history defending set plays, it’s too dismissive to simply chalk the first-half struggles up to Dallas being good.
Notably, however, the Timbers were much sharper in defending set pieces in the second half, only giving up a serious chance on a late corner kick that pinged around the box, but springing another Hoops set piece for a counterattack that led to Diego Chara’s insurance goal.
Thus, although it’s certainly fair to say set-piece defending remains a weakness for a Timbers defense that posted a third strong performance on Saturday, it’s probably not a fatal one. If the Timbers can continue to neutralize major run-of-play threats like Fabian Castillo and (late in the game at least) Blas Perez, a little bit of vulnerability on set plays probably won’t be the Timbers’ undoing in 2015. If mistakes like that which frittered away at least a point in Vancouver persist, however, set pieces could be a contributing factor to another disappointing season.
On Saturday, however, the Timbers eliminated those mistakes, which allowed them to overcome a little bit of difficulty on set pieces.
3. How good are Caleb Porter teams after a loss?
Really good. Like 8-2-5 good.
Perhaps the best quality of the 2014 Timbers was their ability to pick themselves off the mat after a tough loss. Although Portland put themselves in a hole too often, the fight-back in the locker room allowed the Timbers to hang close enough to the playoff race to give themselves a chance to earn a place in the postseason with a strong finish. Although it didn’t end well for Portland in 2014, they never would have been in position for heartbreak if they hadn’t showed considerable heart throughout the season.
Saturday had a similar feel. The loss to Vancouver was crushing, with Liam Ridgewell in particular barely mustering more than a handful of words in his postgame press conference. Although the Timbers had some nervous moments after conceding in the first half (which Porter attributed to a little bit of tightness in light of recent history), Portland was ruthless after the break.
There are certainly going to be more bumps on the road in 2015, especially with Diego Valeri and Will Johnson expected to each be out at least another month. But if the Timbers can react like they did on Saturday night, they should be just fine.
Bonus: Back and to the left.