Another week after a win. Another disappointing result.
Such as it has been for the last fifteen months in Portland Timbers fandom, an experience that has made even periods in which the Timbers have been playing well seem devoid of momentum.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ most recent meltdown:
1. How concerned should we be about a disjointed, rhythmless game played in brutal conditions?
It’s hard to say. Certainly there were many things to dislike about the Timbers’ performance on Saturday.
Conditions notwithstanding, it’s reasonable to be disappointed in the team’s fitness and preparation after the Timbers waned considerably just an hour into the game. The heat and humidity were, by all means, extraordinary on Saturday, which put the Timbers at a significant disadvantage. But these things weren’t a huge surprise. What was more of a surprise, however, was how willing the Timbers were have spurts of the first half in which the game was pretty open. Those periods of tempo didn’t last for the Timbers, however, as it was clear that by the hour the Timbers midfield (and especially the central midfield) was run out. The conditions being what they were, however, it’s not going out on a limb to say the Timbers didn’t manage them well, even if they were difficult to manage.
It’s also reasonable to be concerned about the Timbers’ fullbacks, who for the second time in 2015 had a truly poor performance. In a little bit of a role reversal, Jorge Villafana was the more advanced fullback on Saturday while Alvas Powell held a little bit deeper than he usually does, only accounting for a small handful of touches on the positive side of midfield. The additional conservatism, however, didn’t pay dividends, as Houston targeted Powell more and more as the game went along with plenty of success. Here’s Houston’s second-half distribution chart:
And here’s Powell’s second-half defensive chart:
In short, the Dynamo crushed Powell, targeting him repeatedly in the second half and winning much more than the Timbers would have liked.
So there are reasons for concern. But, on the other hand, in light of the Timbers’ two steps forward, one-and-a-half steps back approach to gathering points, this isn’t exactly a shock. Still, it’s the kind of momentum-deflating result that has made the Timbers maddening to watch over the last 15 months.
2. Was this just a bad game for Darlington Nagbe or was it a sign he’s regressing to old habits with Diego Valeri back in the lineup?
The first nine weeks of the season were a bit of a revelation for Nagbe. Without Valeri in the lineup, Nagbe crafted himself into a true playmaker, at times single-handedly creating attacking sequences when they weren’t coming from anybody else. But now Valeri is back. And so the question is whether Nagbe is going to revert to a distant secondary role in the attack.
The answer on Saturday was yes. Here’s Nagbe’s distribution chart for the whole game against Houston:
Sure, Nagbe completed a fair number of passes, but nothing was incisive, he didn’t even attempt a box entry, and he walked off the field without creating a single chance. Nagbe’s distribution chart in the 30 minutes he played in the second half was even worse:
Ew. Finally, and most shocking, here’s Nagbe’s map of successful dribbles.
That map is blank. And it’s the first time in 2015 that Nagbe hasn’t had a single successful dribble, the statistic that is most reflective of Nagbe’s primary playmaking weapon.
Maybe it was the conditions. Maybe in the second half Nagbe was shaking off the effects of a knock he took at the end of the first half. Maybe it was just a one-off bad game.
But the worry that Nagbe will revert to being a glorified role player with Valeri back is real, and Nagbe’s game in Houston on Saturday did nothing to allay those concerns.
3. Will the Timbers bounce back again?
The Timbers’ next three games are tricky. On Saturday the Timbers travel to Toronto to play the second game in a newly renovated BMO Field. After a 2-1 loss to the Dynamo to open their expanded stadium, the Reds will certainly be plenty motivated to get a result against the Timbers, and, to make matters worse, TFC is coming off a confidence-boosting 1-1 draw at New England Revolution.
Then, next Wednesday, the Timbers travel home to take on Eastern Conference leaders D.C. United, a team whose relative conservatism and consistent ability to pluck a goal out of nowhere could create difficulty for Portland.
Finally, on Saturday May 30th, the Timbers fly to Colorado to play their third game in eight days. Except this time it will be at elevation. Even if the Rapids aren’t the most formidable opponent in the Western Conference, a game in an oxygen-starved environment on two days’ rest is far from ideal.
Which is to say the Timbers’ game at Toronto on Saturday carries outsize importance. Considering the challenges the next two games pose, Saturday in Toronto may be the Timbers’ best chance to capture three points for the rest of the month. And if Portland comes home from Toronto empty-handed, the work they did to stay afloat in Valeri’s absence could be entirely undone and the Timbers could be staring at a significant deficit in the West.