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Three Questions from the Timbers’ 2-0 Win Over the Dynamo

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The Timbers weren’t dominant on Saturday evening, but they got the job done.

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Now this is the kind of result the Timbers weren’t getting earlier in the season.

Portland didn’t put in their best performance of 2015 on Saturday night against the Dynamo. It wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t the kind of dominance they demonstrated against New England and D.C. United in their last two home fixtures.

But unlike so many games in March and April, they got the result. And did so in relatively comfortable fashion.

Here are three questions from the Timbers fourth MLS win in a row:

1. Do the Timbers have the best left side in MLS?

Settle down, Susan.

But that isn’t to say Rodney Wallace and Jorge Villafana haven’t been fantastic. Over the last few weeks they have been.

After a slow start to the season, in the past couple weeks Wallace has started to play some of his best football. In the past week and a half Rodney backed up an electric substitute performance against the Revolution with scoring the winning goal against the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday in the U.S. Open Cup. And on Saturday Wallace put in the type of performance on Saturday evening that made him one of the Timbers’ most consistent performers down the stretch in 2014. Everywhere you looked on Saturday night, Wallace was doing something right. Whether it was providing a combination partner for Villafana or covering his left back defensively, Wallace did a lot of dirty work on Saturday that was key to earning a less-than-exhilirating win for the Timbers.

And much of that dirty work allowed Villafana to steal the show in a first half in which the Timbers’ left back repeatedly created danger deep on the Dynamo flank. Although Villafana’s most memorable moment came on his set-piece assist to Maximiliano Urruti, it was the success of Villafana and Wallace down the left wing in the run of play that made the Timbers deserved winners on Saturday evening.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Villafana and Wallace is that they’re sort of an odd couple on the left wing. Typically a fullback that likes to overlap like Villafana pairs best with a left winger that will invert and play a little bit more centrally. In that setup the inverted winger will collapse the defense while the fullback will occupy the open space on the wings. If the defense pinches toward the winger, the fullback will find promising crossing positions. If the defense stays wide to cover the fullback, the winger will have room to cause mischief in the box.

But, as you can see from the chart above, both Wallace and Villafana naturally float toward the touchline. Textbook soccer tactics, then, would say Wallace and Villafana run the risk of becoming redundant, and that they would be better paired with, in Wallace’s case, a more stay-at-home fullback or, in Villafana’s case, a winger that prefers to operate in the channels.

Over the course of the last few weeks, however, the chemistry between Wallace and Villafana has been so sharp that they’ve used their similar positional tendencies to their advantage. Instead of pulling defenders away from each other, the pair have worked together to use combinations to stretch the defense and release each other into crossing positions.

So, while it’ probably a little bit overly optimistic to declare Villafana and Wallace the best left side in MLS, the pair have certainly emerged as a major force in the Timbers’ five-game winning streak.

2. But seriously, how good is the Timbers’ defense?

Good.

With Saturday’s shutout, the Timbers have now posted seven clean sheets on the season. If seven clean sheets sounds familiar, it’s because that was the Timbers’ total from all of 2014.

We’re not even halfway through 2015.

With the Timbers’ attacking output gradually normalizing, the defense has been the key to reversing the poor start to the season, having allowed multiple goals only once in their last ten games.

Unlike their two previous home games, however, Portland’s defense didn’t have a walk in the park on Saturday evening. After the Timbers went up two goals, the Dynamo started to throw numbers forward. And, despite the insertion of Diego Valeri with 20 minutes to go, the Timbers struggled a little bit to find the right combinations on the counterattack or to consistently keep the ball to kill the game off.

As a result, the defense had a few fires to put out late in the game on Saturday. But, although they haven’t been called on much recently, the Timbers defense was equal to the task. With often four of five white Dynamo shirts in the box, the Timbers defense time and again stepped in to keep the sheet clean. It wasn’t entirely stress-free, but it was effective.

And the ability to weather a little bit of a Dynamo storm is encouraging. With four games in the next 15 days, there are going to be periods in which the tired legs in the attack can’t carry the team and the midfield loses control. If the Timbers want to keep their prodigious pace going, therefore, they’re going to need the defense to do exactly what it did on Saturday night: Put out the fires and and give the attack the chance to win the game.

3. Has Gaston Fernandez earned his spot for the rest of 2015?

A month ago I was shoveling dirt onto La Gata’s tenure in Portland. And, frankly, for good reason; to say Fernandez had been poor to that point in 2015 would be an understatement.

But La Gata has stepped up significantly since Diego Valeri went down with his ankle sprain. And that may have earned him another four months in a Timbers uniform.

Now, don’t get me wrong, aside from nicely converting a second-half penalty, Fernandez was only average on Saturday night. He still fades out of the flow of games too often and at times isn’t quick enough in his decision making to operate with the Timbers have numbers on the break.

But Fernandez was nothing if not capable at Providence Park on Saturday. And if that’s La Gata’s baseline performance, then he’s probably the right piece to have on the roster behind Valeri. As I’ve said before, international signings in Fernandez’s price range are notoriously inconsistent in MLS. The reality is that across the league far more attacking lemons than gems have been brought in at La Gata’s sub-DP price tag. And when you add to that the fact that any signing would be a midseason acquisition, then the uncertainty that would come with making a change at this point would likely be too much to justify.

So if Fernandez can continue to operate capably in midfield, then he is probably the right answer moving forward in 2015. As long as Valeri can stay healthy, the Timbers don’t need that much from Fernandez. Solid substitute appearances and spot starts when Valeri needs a day off is really all Caleb Porter would ask La Gata.

And, if his performances over the last few weeks are any indication, Fernandez is capable of filling that role for the Timbers. Considering where his performances were (and his attitude appeared to be) a month ago, that marks major progress for Gaston.