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From the Stump: The Trophy Window

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It’s time for the Timbers to make a decisive move for a game-changing striker.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

With just over three weeks until the MLS summer transfer window opens on July 8th, the question looming around Morrison Street is whether the Timbers will look to make noise by signing a new designated-player forward.

Three weeks ago the question was being asked from the perspective of whether the Timbers needed to do so to save their 2015 campaign in much the same way that the signing of Liam Ridgewell and Fanendo Adi injected life into a then-listless 2014 season. But three consecutive wins and improved performances from Adi and Gaston Fernandez have significantly brightened the season outlook in Portland, changed the perspective from which the questions are asked, and even made some wonder whether major changes were necessary at all.

Indeed, the Timbers’ current fourth-place standing in the West isn’t anything to scoff at in light of the fact that Diego Valeri has only played 219 out of a possible 1350 minutes. And the Timbers have certainly felt Valeri’s absence, as the Green-and-Gold’s 15 goals through 15 games is well off their borderline-elite pace of the last two years and is last among all 12 MLS teams currently in playoff position.

But in addition to Valeri’s absence, the Timbers attack has weathered slumps by Adi and Maximiliano Urruti, the absence of Will Johnson, poor production (until very recently) from Fernandez, and uncharacteristic inconsistency from Rodney Wallace. Moreover, with injury limitations and MLS as a whole trending toward a counterattacking style, the Timbers have had to moderate the possession-based approach that helped them burst onto the scene in 2013.

Simply put, in many ways, early 2015 has been a perfect storm for the Timbers’ previously vaunted attack. And that storm has taken its toll.

But, in a major departure from 2014, the Timbers have stayed afloat on the strength of their defense. The Timbers’ 14 goals conceded through 15 games gives them a goals-against average of 0.93 concessions per game, a mark that is good enough for second in MLS. Portland’s six clean sheets thus far are only one off their total from 2014 with 19 games remaining.

And as Dan Itel points out in an article on MLSSoccer.com, the turning point for the Timbers’ defense appears to be the addition of Liam Ridgewell in last year’s summer-transfer window. Since Ridgewell joined the squad, the Timbers have gone 14-8-8, and, over the course of those 30 games, the Timbers have only conceded 34 times. In the 19 games before Ridgewell arrived, the Timbers averaged 0.95 points per game while conceding 1.68 goals per game. In the 30 games since Ridgewell debuted the Timbers have allowed 1.13 goals per game and accumulated 1.67 points per game. Placed among the rest of MLS, the Timbers were a bottom-five defensive team before Ridgewell arrived, but have been a top-five defensive outfit since.

The turnaround, therefore, has been remarkable, and, although the addition of Nat Borchers and some systemic tweaks have certainly contributed meaningfully to the Timbers’ defensive renaissance, the addition of Ridgewell appears to have been the turning point for a defense that was the team’s Achilles' heel through early 2014.

With the defense performing as it is right now, therefore, if the attack can regain something close to its 2013 and 2014 form, this Timbers team could be poised to emerge from the peloton and join the MLS elite.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the struggles of the Timbers attack is that it’s been caused by problems that are fixable. Valeri will be back from his sprained ankle by Saturday’s game against the Houston Dynamo. Johnson, too, is well on the road to recovery. Urruti appears to have come out of his slump. Adi’s substitute brace against New England may be an early sign that he’s coming out of his downturn (although his goalscoring wasn’t the primary aspect of his game that suffered during the slump). Even Fernandez, who looked hopelessly lost a few weeks ago, has put together a string of good performances for the first time since early 2014.

Even if there is a good case to be made that the Timbers can expect an uptick (and perhaps a significant one) in offensive output without moves in the summer window, there is considerable opportunity for the Timbers to use the window to make a legitimate run at a trophy. And ultimately that’s because of the Timbers’ progress in aspects other than the attack.

As Caleb Porter alluded to in an interview on Soccer Made in Portland last week, the Timbers have become a pretty well balanced team with, of course, the exception of lacking a truly dominant goalscorer. It’s worth noting, however, that both Adi and Urruti have been good, if not quite great, for the Timbers. Urruti was tops in MLS in non-penalty goals per 90 in 2014 while Adi is top 10 in that respect this year.

Adi, in particular, has been somewhat unfairly maligned for a lack of goalscoring efficiency. Among the 25 players with 30 or more shots, Adi’s 22.2% non-penalty conversion rate (the percentage of unblocked shots converted into goals) is second only to the Sounders’ Clint Dempsey (24%). Which is to say that although Adi is a volume shooter, he’s a relatively efficient one.

But here’s the catch: If you drop the minimum shots number to 15, a whole new group of hyper-efficient strikers emerges, led by Jozy Altidore with his injury-limited 16 shots and 50% non-penalty conversion rate (small sample size alert) and Obafemi Martins with his 21 shots and 36.84% conversion rate. Even Krisztian Nemeth, who has yet to put a firm hold on his starting spot in Kansas City, has shown impressive efficiency with his 28 shots with 28.57% non-penalty conversion rate. And there is another class of strikers who have had hot starts including Will Bruin (21 shots 36.84% conversion rate), Jairo Arrieta (19 shots 35.71% conversion rate), and Charlie Davies (24 shots, 26.09% conversion rate).

In a league in which tactics are trending toward the conservative, striking efficiency is paramount. And although it would be incorrect to call Adi inefficient, the difference between the value of a hyper-efficient Martins and a respectably-efficient Adi is significant.

Which brings us to the point: With just about everything else in the team looking like it’s in order, the Timbers could be a legitimate trophy contender if they can find a striker that brings the efficiency of Altidore, Martins, or even Nemeth.

And they need to do it now. The reality is Diego Valeri is 29. Diego Chara is 29. Will Johnson is 28. Liam Ridgewell is 30. Although there is no reason to expect a drop off in any of their respective games in the next couple years on account of age (Valeri’s game seems particularly well suited to permit him to produce into his 30s), the Timbers’ trophy window with the current nucleus realistically doesn’t extend more than a couple or three years out.

So it’s not time to bring in an up-and-comer. It’s not time to bring in somebody the Timbers think can develop into an elite striker a couple or three years down the road. If the Timbers want to upgrade their number-nine spot to make a legitimate run at a trophy with the team as currently constructed, they need to bring in somebody that can provide elite striking efficiency right now.

That, however, is a lot easier said than done. Over the winter the Timbers pursued more than one high-dollar DP striker, but, clearly, it didn’t pan out. And that’s not because the Timbers are bad at attracting free agents. Nor, frankly, is it because the Timbers aren’t willing to pay for a player of this caliber. Indeed, the Timbers put a considerable amount of money on the table for each target.

It’s because strikers of this quality don’t grow on trees, and convincing this class of player to come to MLS and Portland isn’t easy.

Easy or not, however, the time to make that investment and get that deal done is now. Because if the Timbers wait too long, their trophy window will close before they have made the moves necessary to go through it.

So with the transfer window coming up, the Timbers should be aggressively looking to sign a game-changing DP striker and to move Fanendo Adi on to his next stop. And that’s not because Adi is a bad player or was a bad signing. Neither is the case. He’s a good player and, especially in light of what the Timbers needed at the time, Adi was a good signing.

But ultimately, Adi’s sub-elite production in the number-nine spot likely won’t be enough to allow the Timbers to capitalize on their trophy window.

And upgrading that production is the challenge that lies ahead for the front office between now and the closure of the transfer window.