It’s been a miserable week in the Rose City. The Timbers lost to Toronto FC. The Thorns lost at home to the Houston Dash. And T2 lost to S2 not once, but twice.
So football fans in Stumptown really needed a Timbers win at Providence Park on Wednesday night. And for just the second time all year, that’s exactly what they got.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ 1-0 win over D.C. United:
1. Are the Timbers rounding into better form?
Not so fast.
Now, mind you, there’s nothing significantly wrong with the Portland Timbers’ performance on Wednesday. They faced off against an inferior team and deservedly won. The Timbers were easily the better team on Wednesday, putting nine shots on target to D.C. United’s two. Although the 1-0 scoreline wasn’t terribly impressive, Caleb Porter correctly noted postgame that the final score probably had more to do with United ‘keeper Bill Hamid (who was magnificent in the second half) than anything.
But perhaps the most important point is that the Timbers beat a severely depleted Black-and-Red team on Wednesday. With D.C. playing a lineup that more resembled that of a midweek friendly than a competitive MLS match, the Timbers should have beaten this United side. And they did in about as comfortable a 1-0 win as you’ll find.
That’s certainly not to say the Timbers were perfect. There were a couple times when they were a little bit wasteful with the ball while playing out of the back. There were certainly periods of the second half in which the team looked a little bit tight, playing a few too many balls over the top and not managing the remainder of the game with possession.
But, on the whole, the Timbers were good enough on Wednesday to get the job done. Whether that will be good enough to get the job done on Saturday against a no-longer-incompetent Colorado Rapids team, however, is another story.
The Timbers still have quite a bit to prove.
2. Should anybody from Wednesday’s squad rotation be rotated into the lineup permanently?
United wasn’t the only team resting regular starters, however, as the Timbers started with regulars Nat Borchers, Fanendo Adi, Jack Jewsbury, and Rodney Wallace on the bench. The squad rotation (and an untimely injury to Diego Valeri) allowed Norberto Paparatto, Dairon Asprilla, Maximiliano Urruti, Will Johnson, and Gaston Fernandez to feature in the starting eleven. So who among them made a case to be considered for the full-strength first unit?
Certainly the Timbers will look to move Johnson back into the regular lineup in short order. Although Jewsbury will almost certainly start in Colorado on Saturday, look for Johnson to become a mainstay next to Diego Chara soon.
As Porter pointed out postgame, however, Asprilla had perhaps his best start of the season and made a case for himself to at least be a viable option to be in the eleven if Wallace continues to struggle with consistency. Notably, however, Wallace showed well in his stint off the bench and (aside from a disappointing outing in Toronto) has looked better of late. Accordingly, it’s probably a bit much to suggest Asprilla earned himself an everyday starting spot on Wednesday evening.
That may not be going too far for Urruti, however, as the Argentine striker put in arguably his best performance of the season while scoring a goal (on a perfectly timed run), applying consistent pressure to the United backline, and generally operating well with the Timbers’ three attacking midfielders behind him. With Fanendo Adi (as he showed again in his substitute appearance) seemingly hopelessly out of form, Urruti’s performance against D.C. makes him the prudent choice going forward up top for the Timbers.
Finally, although he’s certainly not poised to step into the starting lineup, Gaston Fernandez had his best outing of the season on Wednesday evening. 2015 has been nothing short of horrible for Fernandez, but on Wednesday La Gata provided a solid Robin to Darlington Nagbe’s Batman in central midfield. Fernandez’s struggles as a playmaking ten and as a second forward in 2015 have been well documented.
But I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Fernandez has been best in 2015 when he can come into central midfield and play second fiddle to Nagbe; essentially floating into the spaces Nagbe clears for him and making things happen from there. Look at Fernandez’s touches chart from Wednesday:
There’s nothing game-breaking in there (well, except for the game-breaking assist), but this is all useful stuff that helps Nagbe Nagbe, Asprilla Asprilla, and Urruti Urruti. This is a similar role to the function Fernandez served in his second-best performance of 2015, a 15-minute second-half substitute appearance at Vancouver:
Thus, although many have called for Fernandez to be deployed higher in the Timbers’ formation, experience in 2015 indicates the way to get the most out of La Gata for the rest of his stay in Portland appears to be the exact opposite: Deploy Gaston a little bit deeper into a facilitative role for his fellow attacking midfielders and the forwards above him.
Is this enough to save The Cat’s skin in the Rose City? Probably not. The Timbers certainly want to get more than a viable facilitator out of the salary-cap space Fernanez is occupying. But this is a way to squeeze some value out of a player that has otherwise looked largely useless.
But, even if Fernandez hasn’t played his way back into the regular rotation (despite a solid performance against D.C.), Urruti probably gave himself pole position for the starting spot up top and Asprilla made clear that he is a plenty viable option if Wallace’s consistency doesn’t return. Sometimes squad rotation becomes permanent.
3. Is it "same as it ever was"?
The banner in the North End was conspicuous: "Same as it ever was" written below a thick red line.
After a promising 2011, the John Spencer Timbers were a disaster in 2012. After a tremendous 2013, the Caleb Porter Timbers were a manifest disappointment in 2014.
And everything we’ve seen thus far in 2015 looks more like 2014 than 2013.
So the sentiment of dissatisfaction with the Timbers’ start and the overall direction of the club is readily understandable. One playoff qualification in four years isn’t impressing anybody, even if that one season was excellent.
Caleb Porter was asked about the banner - and, more specifically, the sentiment - after the game. Here’s what he had to say:
Oh, yeah, I mean obviously I like the fans and we want to win for the fans. So let’s talk at the end of the year. If we’re below the red line then, yeah, I’ll be concerned about it. We’re 12 games in, right? 13 now. So it’s a little early to, I think, be too disappointed with that right now. We’re disappointed we’re below the red line. We want to be above the red line. We want to win for the fans. We care about our fans. So in response to your question: Yes. We care about our fans, so if they’re not happy we want to win for them just like we did tonight.
Look, Porter’s right about this.
As it stands right now the Timbers are two points below the red line (granted, many teams have a game in hand - although a game in hand means little as a function of points per game at this point of the season) with 21 games to play. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Timbers are only seven points out of the top spot in the Western Conference.
Which isn’t to say the Timbers will win the West or even will make the playoffs. Both of those things remain to be seen even if a Western Conference crown seems like a longshot, at best.
But Porter’s point is that those things remain to be seen. There’s a lot of season left and, even if the Timbers’ current standing is disappointing, it’s not so bad that a good season and deep run into the playoffs is irretrievably out of reach.
The Timbers need to start winning. The results and performances need to improve very soon. And if that means certain players need to be upgraded during the summer transfer window, then that’s what that means.
If at the end of the season the Timbers once again fall short, then it will be time to ask questions about the direction of the club and whether fundamental changes need to take place from the top down.
But, as Porter emphasized after the win against D.C. United on Wednesday, it’s too early to say the 2015 Timbers are the same-as-it-ever-was mediocre Timbers.