Sometimes you don’t know what you have until you lose it.
With Maximiliano Urruti, Darlington Nagbe, Alvas Powell, Jorge Villafana, Diego Chara, Adam Kwarasey, and Norberto Paparatto (to say nothing of Ben Zemanski) out for various reasons, the Portland Timbers came into Philadelphia needing to play very well to earn any sort of result.
And, as such, the Timbers fell in relatively predictable fashion to the Philadelphia Union.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ latest road capitulation:
1. Just how bad were the fullbacks?
They were poor. There really are no two ways about it.
Taylor Peay struggled mightily at the start as the Union repeatedly broke down his side and exposed the Timbers’ central defense. During the period in which Philadelphia exploited the Timbers’ right side, Portland successfully (if nervously) kept the Union at bay. Ultimately, though, Peay grew into the game, and in the second half the Union turned their attention to the Timbers’ left flank.
And that’s when things really got ugly. Jeanderson, who had a handful of nice pieces of attacking play in the first half and early in the second half, was absolutely overrun defensively, as the Union exploited his lack of tactical awareness to create chances seemingly at will.
Sometimes having two fullbacks making their first MLS start turns out just as poorly as it seems like it could.
But, as poor as Peay and Jeanderson were on Saturday, you have to remember it was both players’ first MLS start. Are they ready to play a major role for the Timbers? No. But both are relatively young, new to top-flight football, and clearly in need of more seasoning before they’re ready to meaningfully contribute. But that doesn’t mean they’re hopeless as prospects.
Barely more than a year ago, after all, both Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana looked lost in their appearances at fullback for the Timbers. Those two are now a very solid fullback tandem for a team that as of Sunday morning is one point off the Western Conference pace.
But that is no solace for Saturday.
To be fair, however, the rest of the Timbers team was set up in a way that put tremendous pressure on the fullbacks.
By starting an attacking-midfield three of Rodney Wallace, Diego Valeri, and Gaston Fernandez, the Timbers had only one winger (Wallace) who is a genuine two-way player. It’s no coincidence that the Union turned their focus to whichever side Wallace wasn’t on.
And without Chara, the Timbers' defensive-midfield pairing was without a true ball winner and struggled to cover the vast amounts of lateral space needed to cover the fullbacks and maintain balance in the absence of two defensively committed wingers.
So it’s important to note that the Timbers' setup (forced largely by absences) made life difficult for two players making their first top-flight start. But, in any event, they didn’t handle it well.
2. Do the Timbers need to find some cover at fullback?
The struggles of Peay and Jeaderson, however, bring to the fore questions about whether the Timbers need to look to bring in depth at fullback.
Although they may be options down the road, both Jeanderson and Peay aren’t ready to start on a playoff team right now. Andy Thoma has also impressed at T2, but could probably use another year at that level before he’s ready for a serious look from the first team.
Jewsbury, then, probably represents the third fullback on the roster right now and may well get the call at right back next week. But given his age and the fact that he’s spent 2015 providing cover in defensive midfield, while Jewsbury is probably the best option at this point, it’s not the ideal spot to put him in.
With Alvas Powell likely back from the Gold Cup for either the visit to Dallas on July 25th or, at the latest, the away trip to San Jose on August 2nd, this isn’t a long-term concern for the Timbers. And if Powell and Villafana can stay healthy, this is largely a moot point.
But that "if" is a worrying one.
The Timbers, therefore, are in a tricky spot at fullback. They can’t responsibly devote considerable resources to acquiring a backup fullback because they have a solid starting unit that has been relatively durable over the course of the last couple seasons. But if something does happen, the lack of depth could hamper the run the Timbers are still poised to make.
So, if there is a deal that represents good value there to be made during the summer transfer window (which doubles this year as the final MLS trade window), the Timbers should probably make it. But if the market price of a third fullback is anything other than good value, the Timbers probably have to stand pat with what they have and hope for the best.
3. Was Porter’s decision to rest so many players a good one?
There is no question that the Timbers could have trotted out a better lineup than they did on Saturday. None of the players that sat out with injuries on Saturday are expected to miss considerable time, and many are expected back by next week. Villafana’s exclusion, which in the light of day appears particularly significant, was simply a matter of planned rest after Sueno played the heaviest minutes of any field player in the Timbers’ stretch of six-games-in-19-days stretch.
So it’s fair to conclude that at least some of the players the Timbers were missing on Saturday were on some level elective absences.
Was that a good idea?
It’s hard to say at this point because Vancouver and Sporting Kansas City have yet to play. If the Whitecaps win, they’ll move three points clear of the pack in the West and be four points ahead of the Timbers. That would add at least a tinge of regret for the Timbers’ failure to get points out of a game that, playing full strength, they probably could have expected something out of. But that deficit would be largely erasable when the Whitecaps visit Portland for what would become a high-pressure game next weekend.
As it stands only one point separates first from fifth in the Western Conference, and if the table looks more or less the same on Sunday night, the sacrifice of a potential result in Philadelphia would look like a well-measured gamble to mend some nagging injuries and set the team up for a late run.
Thus, in spite of the undeniable ugliness of the scoreline against the Union on Saturday, the Timbers may come out just fine on the other side if Nagbe’s shoulder, Kwarasey’s quad, Chara’s ankle, Paparatto’s calf, and Urruti’s quad all benefit from the layoff.