You have to give Caleb Porter’s Timbers this: They’re rarely boring. Frustrating? Certainly at times. Nerve-wracking? Definitely. But hardly ever boring.
It looked for a while on Saturday evening that the Timbers might be unusually boring on their way to a relatively easy victory at Colorado. Throughout much of the second half the Timbers looked likely to notch a second that would have surely put the game out of reach for a chronically misfiring Rapids attack.
But drama arrived at last, and what looked like a deserved victory appeared in danger of being defeat before Jack Jewsbury’s last-minute winner swung the pendulum decisively back toward triumph.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ 2-1 victory in Commerce City:
1. Has Gaston Fernandez worked his way back into the team’s plans for this year?
It’s probably a little bit early to tell, but if Fernandez continues to perform the way he has in the last two games the Timbers would be loathe to let him go too soon.
Playing a little bit higher than his facilitative role against D.C. United, Fernandez put in his first good performance of the season as a number ten on Saturday. With both Darlington Nagbe and Dairon Asprilla playing high on the wings, Fernandez tucked just underneath the Timbers’ three forwards. Repeatedly finding spaces between the lines, Fernandez served as the Timbers’ primary playmaker in the first half, creating a pair of chances and serving as the primary conduit from the midfield into attacking positions.
But playmaking wasn’t the only thing Fernandez offered in the first half, as the other effect of Fernandez tucking in just behind the forward line was that he became very difficult for Colorado to track. As a result La Gata was able to make runs out of his midfield position and into space when cracks opened up on the Rapids backline. That, for what it’s worth, is exactly how the Timbers score their first goal.
When Diego Valeri suits up, the Timbers don’t usually tuck their primary playmaker beneath the forward line in a 4-3-3. Instead, when the Timbers go to more of a 4-3-3 look, they’ll usually put Valeri on the right and shift Nagbe into the hole to connect the midfield and the forwards.
But with two outside forwards who are good at keeping the ball, the Timbers forced early rotations from Colorado’s defensive midfielders by finding those wide spaces with outlet passes from defense. Bringing Fernandez off the frontline, then, allowed the outside forwards to be the point of connection between defense and attack, and permitted Fernandez to work within the gaps opened up by the vacated d-mids. Then operating underneath his countryman Urruti, Fernandez often had plenty of space to either play to one of the outside forwards (who had then advanced to press and stretch the backline), an overlapping fullback (usually Jorge Villafana), or link up with Urruti on the interior. All three options yielded legitimate attacking sequences for the Timbers.
Thus, in a season in which Fernandez has had real trouble with being unable to find space in central areas, the Timbers used wide play early in the attack to open up the middle for an advanced central-midfield Fernandez.
What is encouraging, then, about Fernandez’s performance is not necessarily just that he played well. Indeed, he played well in a sort of Alhassanesque facilitative role midweek against D.C. United. But that role probably isn’t enough to justify keeping Fernandez around through the rest of the season. Rather, the encouraging thing about Fernandez’s performance on Saturday is that he played well as a number ten, something the Timbers have needed desperately in Valeri’s absence.
But, while Saturday’s performance from Fernandez as a number ten is encouraging, it is only one performance. Gaston will probably have to prove he can put in performances like Saturday's regularly before the Timbers will be convinced he is a worthwhile use of valuable cap space for the remainder of the season.
With two good performances in a row, however, and one showing that Fernandez can, indeed, help the Timbers as a playmaker, La Gata may have a few lives left in Portland.
2. Can the Timbers salt away results?
Before Sam Cronin’s equalizer and Jewsbury’s late winner, the Timbers had any number of chances to effectively put the game away at 2-0.
But they didn’t.
And although the sample size is still small, this is becoming a little bit of a trend for the Timbers.
On May 9th in Montreal the Timbers led 2-1 as the second half began to tick away. As the Impact pushed numbers forward in desperate search for a leveling goal, the Timbers had a handful of golden opportunities to go up 3-1. But they couldn’t and, although the Timbers held on for their 2-1 win, it wasn’t nearly as comfortable as it should have been.
The story was somewhat similar against D.C. United midweek. The Timbers went up 1-0 early on, but, thanks in significant part to the commendable efforts of Bill Hamid, weren’t able to find the insurance goal in the second half. Although a heavily depleted United team never looked terribly threatening to equalize, the inferior United were always one defensive mistake from stealing points from Portland. Again, the Timbers earned an early one-goal lead, but failed to slam the door down the stretch.
After Cronin’s equalizer whizzed past Adam Kwarasey on Saturday night it looked like this mini-pattern had finally caught up to the Timbers. Just as they had in Montreal and against D.C., the Timbers had a fair few opportunities to put the game out of reach in the second half against the Rapids but, time and again, Portland failed to find the finishing touch. Fortunately Jewsbury’s winner bailed the Timbers out and, once again, Portland wasn’t punished for its struggles in putting games away.
But the Timbers won’t be able to dodge these bullets forever and, considering how valuable points will be in a chaotic Western Conference race, Portland can’t afford to drop points in games they should be putting away. Thus, even if the Timbers haven’t yet been punished by their inability to put results on ice, if their struggles continue in this respect it’s hard to see how it won’t have a material effect on their season.
3. Where does Jack Jewsbury’s legacy in Portland stand?
On one level, Jewsbury was among the least likely players on the field on Saturday to notch a late winner. Not known for getting forward from his defensive midfield (or fullback) position, Captain Jack last scored a goal on October 21, 2012. Since that time, Jewsbury has been known for bring a solid locker-room presence and putting in solid, consistent performances in relief of starters at a variety of spots.
Jack Jewsbury the player, however, seems to be regarded as an average, if largely reliable player. Which, objectively, is true.
Except then there’s this:
Jewsbury's last 4 MLS goals Tonight Cascadia Cup-winner Left footed golazzo late game-tying goal Game-winner vs No. 1 team in league #RCTID— Mike Donovan (@TheMikeDonovan) May 31, 2015
Saturday night’s heroics from Jewsbury constitute just the latest instance of Captain Jack coming through in the clutch for the Timbers. And the goals noted by Mike Donovan don’t even include Jewsbury’s performance in the Timbers’ 2013 playoff win over the Seattle Sounders, in which Captain Jack was arguably the best player in a series that featured Clint Dempsey, Diego Valeri, and (albeit briefly) Obafemi Martins.
At 34 years of age, we’re almost certainly in the last year or two of Jewsbury’s career. And although for much of his time in Portland Jewsbury has been a role player, Jack has stood tallest for the Timbers in some of the club's biggest moments. Moreover, throughout his tenure in Portland, Jewsbury has consistently been the quiet backbone of the locker room.
Thus, Jewsbury’s legacy shouldn’t simply be that of the the do-it-all veteran that he’s been to the club for most of the last two years. Instead, Captain Jack should be respected and eventually remembered as a key figure in the early MLS history of the Timbers that stepped up when the club needed him most.
And Saturday night only adds another chapter to that legacy.