The Portland Timbers season to date has been one characterized by high highs and low lows, the inverse of the old Caleb Porter adage that was the team's mantra through 2013 and 2014.
After the team's rough start to the season, the Timbers looked like they were on an upward trajectory after the returns of Will Johnson and Diego Valeri to the lineup saw the team being to scrape together some positive performances. Things suddenly became polarized in the last two months, however, as the Timbers have found themselves with a 3-7-1 record on the road and a 6-1-4 record at home.
With their latest blow-out loss on the road coming this last Saturday against FC Dallas (4-1 in case you forgot), the Timbers find themselves with a remarkable -13 goal differential on the road and a -4 goal differential overall. Of the road goal differential, -11 of it has come in the Timbers' last three road games. The other side of the coin, however, is that the Timbers are undefeated in their last seven at home, posting a 5-0-2 record with a +9 goal differential at Providence Park during that period.
Of course, many of you may have noted already that +9 over seven games (five games if we are being charitable) is decidedly less impressive than -11 over three games.
So, what is going on with the Timbers in their recent run of strong home form and disastrous away form?
Well, for one thing, the Timbers have had some good luck at home and poor luck on the road with the teams that they have faced. The teams that the Timbers have been taking on at Providence Park have been almost all missing key players due to call ups, injuries, and suspension and the Timbers have exploited that weakness.
Away from home, however, the Timbers have been bitten by the same bug, missing Diego Chara in the 5-0 loss to the LA Galaxy, Will Johnson against Dallas, and about half the team in the 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union. At the same time, the Timbers were coming up against the teams on the road that, even if they were missing players, have been on the rise recently. Dallas came into the weekend's match with a four game winning streak; the Union broke out of their early season funk and have generally been not bad after a terrible start to their campaign in the Eastern Conference; and the Galaxy realized that it is the second half of the season and they should start winning games, as they do every year.
Tactically there have been significant difference between the Timbers' home and away matches as well. At home the Timbers have been able to push forward with the ball, getting it into their opponent's final third and putting high pressure on to cause turnovers and find cracks in the opposition defense.
On the road, the opposite has been true as the Timbers have struggled to move the ball down the field and, instead of putting pressure on their opponents, have been put under pressure themselves. With a significant drop off in penetration into the attacking third, it is hardly any wonder that the Timbers have been struggling to get shots off, let alone score goals.
So, is this who the Timbers are now: a good team at home and a terrible one on the road? Or is there reason to hope for something more?
Well, an early look at new arrival Lucas Melano at the end of the Timbers' loss to Dallas may have raised some spirits as the young winger looked to turn on the jets and get in behind the otherwise rock-solid Dallas back line. In doing so, Melano earned a yellow for a defender early in his appearance and, in the final minutes of the game, earned a penalty for the Timbers. It is only a few minute of a match whose outcome was already decided, but Melano looked like he could be a key piece to the Timbers' puzzle.
At the other end of the pitch, despite the Timbers' abysmal showings on the road recently, there is reason to believe that the team can start making things difficult for their opposition again. Back at the start of the season, the Timbers may have been struggling in the attack, but their defense was as good as any in MLS and all of those players are still on hand, even if their performances have not been up to snuff recently for a number of reasons.
There are many players who need to step up their level of contribution if they Timbers are going to do anything other than squeak into the playoffs, but we have seen a higher level from all of them, so it is up to the team, and Caleb Porter, to get them back to where they need to be.