Three wins in a row.
That’s been a long time coming, and, for a while on Saturday evening, it looked like it might be even a little bit longer. For 85 minutes on Saturday night it looked like the Portland Timbers might be on their way to one of the patented played-well-but-didn’t-get-the-result outings.
But in the 86th minute on Saturday evening Fanendo Adi opened the floodgates, and the goals streamed through to secure the Timbers’ monkey-off-the-back third consecutive win.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ 2-0 triumph over New England Revolution:
1. How impressive has this three-game win streak been?
And it’s not that the Timbers have run a gauntlet of brutal competition. The D.C. United team that came to Portland was severely weakened from that which leads the Eastern Conference. The Colorado Rapids team the Timbers beat on the road isn’t hapless, but is also far from great. Finally, the Revolution team the Timbers handled on Saturday evening hasn’t won a game in more than a month.
But it’s not the competition that makes the winning streak so impressive. Rather, it’s that the Timbers have done it without Diego Valeri.
Leaving Toronto two weeks ago, 2015 very much looked like a season on the brink. The Timbers were tied for last place in the West and staring in the face of three games that could have easily slipped away from them. And they had to manage it without their best player.
After the game Caleb Porter talked about the team’s resilience, but coming home from Toronto I’m not sure anybody in honesty would have predicted the events of the two weeks that followed the loss to the Reds. And what was 14 days ago a season on the brink of doom now may be a season on the brink of something special.
Come the end of the weekend, the Timbers will either be in fourth or fifth place in the West. And while only two points will separate the Timbers from the red line on Sunday night, Portland sits only four points from the top of the conference. So the point is this: The Western Conference race is tight. But the Timbers are in the thick of it right now and, even without their best player (whose return appears imminent), Portland is playing plenty well enough to be competitive.
There is still a ton of work to do. 22 points after 15 games has never won anybody anything.
But if the Timbers can keep building on the foundation they’ve laid without Valeri these last two weeks, then 2015 might just turn into a special season.
2. Are we witnessing the reinvention of DieJo?
Diego Chara and Will Johnson were the best holding-midfield pairing in MLS in 2013. Paired up somewhat untraditionally as two box-to-box midfielders, Johnson and Chara’s ball winning and influence in retaining the ball in the attack were perhaps the biggest aspect of the Timbers' revelation two years ago.
But that prowess waned somewhat in 2014 as counterattacking teams were able to find cracks in the Timbers’ midfield when Chara and Johnson would get out of balance. And although the Timbers certainly suffered a blow when Johnson went down with a broken leg last September, the play of Ben Zemanski in a more stay-at-home role behind Chara made many question DieJo’s stylistic mismatch.
Those questions, therefore, have lingered with Johnson now back in the team having mostly recovered from his broken right leg.
Asked about the how this balance between Johnson and Chara has been working with the Captain now back in the team, Porter answered, "Really well. You know in some ways because Will isn’t quite 100% in terms of being able to cover the type of ground that he normally can cover, I think positionally those two guys have never been better. You look at the two games they’ve played, we have two clean sheets."
Take a look at Johnson and Chara’s respective distribution charts on Saturday:
In the attack, Chara was the box-to-box guy while Johnson stayed at home as more of a six. Now let’s look in defense:
More of the same. Chara takes on the ball-winning duties while Johnson sits deeper to organize and cover the backline.
The most encouraging thing about this, however, isn’t that it appears the partnership between Johnson and Chara will be just fine during these next weeks and months in which Will is working his way back to full fitness. Rather, it’s that this looks like it could be a viable way to construct a Johnson-Chara midfield going forward.
Recovering from a leg break as severe as Johnson’s isn’t an easy thing to do. And the reasonable question lingering over Johnson’s recovery is whether he’s going to come back as the save everywhere-at-once player that he was. We simply don’t know if Johnson is going to regain the step that he’s missing right now.
But if he doesn’t, this is the answer: Will Johnson as a truer defensive midfielder while Chara wins the ball and works box to box. And not only is this a viable option, as Porter pointed out postgame, it’s already been a pretty successful one for the Timbers thus far.
In some ways a shift to playing the six could be a blessing in disguise for Johnson. The fact is that defensive midfielders typically have a little bit longer shelf life than box-to-box players because there simply aren’t the same athletic demands on a six that there are on a box-to-box midfielder.
Thus, not only is DieJo 2.0 working for the Timbers right now while Johnson is polishing off his recovery, but it may also be a path forward for the foreseeable future.
3. How high can the Timbers’ defense take them?
The Timbers’ defense hasn’t been perfect in 2015. But it hasn’t been all that far off.
The Timbers 0.933 goals-against per game puts them 3rd in MLS and, frankly, has been a major part of the Timbers success (there, I said it) in managing a difficult opening stretch to the season. But it’s also the biggest reason to be bullish about the Timbers’ prospects moving forward.
The goals are going to come. Although the Timbers have been held back by injuries to Diego Valeri, slumps from Fanendo Adi and Maximiliano Urruti, and a lack of output from the wingers, each of those appear to be temporary setbacks rather than longterm hindrances. Valeri is going to come back. Urruti seems to have pulled out of his malaise. Adi is either going to emerge from his and/or be transferred during the summer window. And eventually Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla, and (maybe) Darlington Nagbe are going to contribute meaningfully to balls put into the net.
Simply put, at this point there really isn’t any reason to doubt that the Timbers will reach at least something close to the goalscoring form that has made them third best team in MLS in that respect the last two years.
As 2014 taught us, however, a good attack isn’t a silver bullet. But if the defense continues to play at or even near its current level and the attack comes around, the Timbers will be one of the best teams in MLS.