Sometimes you’re good. Sometimes you’re lucky. Sometimes you’re neither.
The Portland Timbers were neither on Saturday evening in Toronto, as they struggled to create the chances to overcome a sixth-minute strike from Sebastian Giovinco. Facing a Toronto FC team that doggedly refused to commit numbers to the attack after the Atomic Ant’s opener and ultimate game-winner, the Timbers struggled mightily to crack the Reds’ entrenched backline.
So the Timbers weren’t good on Saturday.
Nonetheless, it looked like the Timbers had a lifeline in the 81st minute when Maxi Urruti beat Toronto goalkeeper Chris Konopka to the ball. The Reds goalkeeper whiffed on the ball and sent Urruti to the ground by clearing out the former Red's right leg.
That’s a penalty. And, frankly, it’s an easy call. There’s simply no non-insane argument to the contrary.
So the Timbers were also unlucky on Saturday. But bad luck makes for bad questions, so, misfortune aside, here are three questions from the Timbers’ 1-0 loss to TFC:
1. How serious is Diego Valeri’s ankle injury?
Forget the dropped points. Forget the penalty. By far the most significant development from the loss in Toronto is Diego Valeri leaving the game in the 25th minute with what Caleb Porter confirmed was a sprained ankle.
At first blush, the news that Valeri’s injury is a sprained ankle isn’t terrible news. Sprained ankles are far from ideal, but they’re typically also not season enders. Most ankle sprains carry with them a one-to-three week recovery time. Although there are some ankle injuries, particular high ankle sprains, that can take longer to heal, with a little bit of luck (see above), this could be a relatively short-term setback for the Timbers.
After the game on Saturday Porter indicated Valeri would likely miss the Timbers’ midweek game against D.C. United, but was less certain about his medium-term availability thereafter. The problem, however, is that even a relatively brief setback could be quite bad for the Timbers, with Portland staring in the face of two challenging games in the next six days.
Thus, even a relatively short-term layoff for Valeri could only dig the Timbers’ deeper in the hole they’ve put themselves in with a tepid opening dozen games. But a longer layoff would be absolutely devastating with June and July packed with six games against playoff-contending Western Conference teams.
2. Can the Timbers find a way to break down packed-in defenses?
Two weeks in a row the Timbers have conceded an early goal on the road. And two weeks in a row the Timbers have struggled to generate chances against home teams that have looked to manage their early lead by sitting in defense and looking to counter.
That’s caused absolute fits for the Timbers. Here’s Portland’s first-half distribution chart from their loss to the Dynamo:
The Timbers clearly had a hard time breaking down the Dynamo defense and, as a result, had almost nothing in the way of box entries or dangerous crosses.
Now let’s take a look at the Timbers’ first half against TFC:
Different day, same story.
Any discussion of how to break down teams holding numbers in defense, however, has to start from one fundamental premise: It’s hard. That’s why teams sit deep. And that’s why it’s happening more and more in MLS.
Breaking down a packed-in opponent comes down to one basic challenge: How do you create space in which your playmakers can operate? There are a number of ways that a team can go about doing this, including: (1) Using penetration on the wings to force the backline to collapse toward the byline and open spaces toward the top of the box; (2) Employing holdup play with the center forward to draw the defense in toward a central number-nine and then looking to operate in the channels opened up on either side of the striker; and (3) Patiently switching the play to try to find cracks in the defense caused by slow rotations.
As to the first point, the Timbers had virtually no penetration from the wings in Toronto. There was precious little activity near the byline in the first half and, as you can see just below, almost none (especially on the left) in a second half in which the Timbers were, nonetheless, marginally more dangerous than before halftime.
Remember this last chart. Well refer back to it a few times.
As to the second method of breaking down numbers in defense (holdup play), Fanendo Adi was positively miserable in the first half. Here’s Adi’s distribution chart from the first 45 minutes:
Basically, there are no words. That’s awful enough that you have to think the only reason Adi started the second half was Caleb Porter having to burn an early sub on account of Valeri’s injury. Somewhat to Adi’s credit, however, his holdup play improved not insignificantly in the second half.
This allowed the Timbers to find a few spaces in the attack and enjoy a little bit more central buildup than you’d expect with as many TFC numbers behind the ball as there were. Still, it wasn’t enough to be consistently dangerous.
Finally, in the second half the Timbers looked to employ the third method of cracking open defensive numbers: switches in play. Notice in the Timbers’ second-half distribution chart how much lateral motion there is just on the attacking side of the center circle. This, in combination with improved holdup play from Adi, was largely responsible for the modest improvement in the Timbers’ attacking form in the second half.
But, ultimately, it wasn’t enough. And a good portion of the responsibility lands on the Timbers’ inability to penetrate on the wings and force the backline into motion.
In this respect, I was surprised by Porter’s 60th-minute substitution of Dairon Asprilla for Rodney Wallace. When I saw Asprilla step to the touchline I expected the Timbers would remove Jack Jewbsury, put Asprilla on the left wing, and invert the central-midfield triangle to leave Diego Chara as the lone holding midfielder and have Gaston Fernandez and Darlington Nagbe look to operate in central areas while facilitating wing play by floating into the channels.
Such an approach, however, certainly wouldn’t have been without risk. Indeed, it would have pulled a player out of defense and would have put considerable onus on the back five to put out the counterattacking fires that would have resulted. Thirty minutes with Chara as the only holding midfielder would have been a lot to weather. But, in light of TFC’s reluctance to push numbers into the attack and the glaring mismatch between Jewsbury as a number-six against Giovinco, it probably would have been a risk worth taking.
Instead, Porter lifted Wallace for Asprilla, and moved Darlington Nagbe to the left as an inverted winger, where he operated in many of the same channels as Nagbe would have in an inverted-triangle 4-3-3, leaving the task of providing width and wing penetration to Jorge Villafana and, later, Liam Ridgewell. The result: The Timbers had one open-play cross from the left wing within ten yards of the byline in the second half.
That’s simply not enough penetration from the Timbers’ wingers in the face of a firmly entrenched defense. This isn’t simply to skewer Porter for his in-game tactical moves on Saturday (I agree with his postgame assessment that moving to a 3-3-4 in the last 10 minutes worked fairly well and the attack functioned better in the second half than it did before halftime), but the Asprilla-for-Wallace move did little to improve what was (and has been) a real weakness for the Timbers against the numbers they’ve been seeing opponents pack into defense.
Simply put, the book is out on how to neutralize the Timbers, especially when Portland’s opponent can nick the first goal. And unless the Timbers can start getting more from the wings, it’s hard to see the Timbers solving what is clearly becoming a problem.
3. How close is 2015 to the brink?
The Timbers’ last two losses have been particularly deflating in light of the sense that with the return of Diego Valeri the team was poised to make a run into the thick of a messy Western Conference playoff picture.
Two deflating losses later and the Timbers are buried at the bottom of the Western Conference table, on the same number of points that John Spencer’s 2012 team had at this point of the season, and staring in the face of the back end of a difficult three-games-in-seven days stretch.
Now, granted, it’s not time to hit the panic button and compare the 2015 Timbers to the 2012 Timbers just yet. The wheels didn’t fully come off the wagon of Spencer’s team until the summer. And, in the grand scheme of things, the Timbers sit four points below the red line with 22 games to play.
So, we shouldn’t be in sky-is-falling mode yet. But if the Timbers don’t start racking up points soon (as noted, a job that will be considerably more difficult if Diego Valeri is out for an extended period), we may be getting there.
And although it is highly unlikely that there will be major changes within the Timbers organization during the season, if this season stays on the track it has been through the first dozen games, then changes will be a major question heading into the offseason.
Which is simply to say this: The pressure is mounting. The Timbers have fought their way into back contention with their backs against the wall before. And they’re going to have to do so again now.