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Three Questions from the Timbers’ 1-0 Victory over the Quakes

Captain Jack rescued the Timbers again with another late winner in a bruising affair with the Earthquakes.

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Well, well, well. Look who it is coming to the rescue again.

Captain Jack.

In a game that was at times bizarre, brutish, and frustrating, Jack Jewsbury once again scored at the death to allow his Portland Timbers go home with their fully deserved three points.

Here are three questions from the Timbers’ win over the Earthquakes:

1. Could the Timbers have played two more different opponents in one week?

Midweek the Timbers went to Real Salt Lake in U.S. Open Cup play and came away 2-0 losers. In that game, playing with no true defensive midfielders and a makeshift backline, RSL pressed high and hard to try to kill Timbers attacks in the cradle. The Timbers, without their two best press breakers in Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara, were smothered, as the Claret-and-Cobalt barely let Portland out of their own end for extended periods of the match, and successfully covered a backline that looked shaky the few times the Timbers were able to get after it.

Sunday night was the exact opposite. The San Jose Earthquakes came into Providence Park on Sunday more than happy to concede space in the midfield, drop their block deep, and dare the Timbers to break them down in the final third. The Quakes put particular emphasis on keeping the Timbers out of central areas, forcing the Timbers to play wide and to look to play crosses into the middle. With two dominant centerbacks in Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez, this very much played to San Jose’s defensive strength. And, as a result, although the Timbers were more or less successful in dominating the ball and creating half chances in spades, the Quakes did a nice job of limiting the Timbers’ true goalscoring opportunities.

In some ways the results against the Timbers’ two opponents this past week are a little bit counterintuitive. The Timbers have established a reputation as a team that wants its opponents to come out from their lines and play football, but will struggle when teams drop their blocks, close down the spaces between the lines and in behind, and force the Timbers to break them down.

But at halftime against the Quakes, Porter told his team that this suits them just fine. Porter’s message was that the Timbers like to dominate the game, and if San Jose was going to sit back and let the Timbers control the proceedings, Portland was going to be more than happy to take what the Quakes would give them.

It is worth noting, however, that the Timbers have struggled in the past against teams that have packed it in at Providence Park and dared the Timbers to break them down. In 2014, for example, Sporting Kansas City came to Portland severely weakened by World Cup absences, found a goal on a long throw, and packed the box on the way to a 1-0 victory that took the wind out of the Timbers’ sails right when it appeared they were gaining momentum.

Although it wasn’t without its nervous moments, the Timbers came out on top of a similar game on Sunday. Instead of conceding a goal against the run of play as they did so often last year, the Timbers found a way to break through on Sunday. The Timbers probably weren’t as opportunistic on Sunday as they would have liked, but in the end they were opportunistic enough.

But the past week highlights an interesting tactical dilemma for teams playing the Timbers: come out and press or drop deep and bunker? Real Salt Lake won their bet by pressing as hard as the Timbers have seen all year, but questions remain about whether that is an advisable strategy when the Timbers are at full strength and in form. San Jose just barely lost their bet on Sunday, but, while they very easily could have come out of Providence Park with a point, bunkering against the Timbers seems riskier in light of Portland’s manifestly improved defense.

It’s not the last time this season that the Timbers’ will see both of these styles. And after a week of playing two opponents with diametrically opposed tactics, the Timbers probably have a good barometer of what they need to improve down the stretch of what is shaping up to be an extraordinarily tight playoff race.

2. Are we getting closer to full Valeri?

We’re not there yet, but the most positive development from Sunday night against the Earthquakes may have been the at-times dominant performance from Diego Valeri.

Valeri has struggled a little bit since returning from a sprained ankle suffered in Toronto that kept the Argentine playmaker out for nearly a month just weeks after returning from a torn ACL. On Sunday evening, Valeri put in his frist 90-minute shift of the season.

But, more to the point, for the first time since a couple solid performances before the ankle sprain, Valeri was the best player on the field on Sunday.

Valeri popped up all over the field against the Earthquakes, sliding around midfield to find space from which he could pull the strings in the Timbers’ attack. It’s too enthusiastic to go so far as to say Sunday was a vintage Valeri performance, but it was much closer to his torrid 2014 form than Valeri’s outings of the previous two weeks.

If Valeri can build on his shift against the Earthquakes and fully return to form in the near future, the Timbers could be in business heading into the final 15 games of 2015. Sitting on 1.63 points per game, the Timbers are only one point off the top of the West and functionally within one favorable result of being top of the league on a points per game basis. And looking down the road at the schedule the rest of the way, the Timbers have as favorable of a slate of games the rest of the way as any Western Conference team.

The prospect of effectively adding an in-form Diego Valeri to a team that is already in the thick of the Western Conference and for Supporters Shield races is a significant advantage.

So, while we may not be at full Valeri just yet, it appears the Maestro is making strides toward being back among MLS’s playmaking elite. And the prospect of such a return may just give the Timbers a realistic shot at a trophy in 2015.

3. How much longer is Nagbe’s shoulder injury going to linger?

It’s not news that Darlington Nagbe injured his shoulder against LA Galaxy a week ago. What is news, however, is that it’s clear the injury is affecting him.

As the game went along on Sunday, Nagbe increasingly carried his shoulder and floated out of the run of play.

Although Nagbe wasn’t at his most effective in the first half, he was involved in the Timbers’ buildup, created three chances, and was one of the only Timbers’ players who had any success getting into Zone 14 and threatening the Quakes defense from the central areas that San Jose desperately wanted to keep the Timbers out of.

But as the second half went along, Nagbe increasingly floated deeper and wider, serving as a cog on the wing and not the playmaker that he’d been in the first half. Now, it’s worth noting that part of this was certainly tactical, as the Timbers shaded to the left through Nagbe, Will Johnson, and Jorge Villafana. But the lack of incisiveness coming from Nagbe and his reluctance to stay out of the middle of the field was almost certainly influenced by his sore shoulder, something that became eminently clear late in the second half when Nagbe wasn’t moving his right arm at all.

Nagbe’s importance to the Timbers this season has not been any secret. It is no coincidence that the Timbers have been at their best when Nagbe plays well, but struggle when Nagbe struggles (or, as in the game on Wednesday in Salt Lake, doesn’t play at all).

The Timbers are riding a major wave of momentum right now, having won six of their last seven and with a winnable away game at Philadelphia Union next up. But looming beyond the fixture in Philadelphia is a massive home game with Vancouver Whitecaps, a game that will have major Western Conference and Cascadia Cup implications.

Nagbe’s shoulder injury, therefore, has the potential to be a momentum killer for the Timbers is if it continues to hamper him as the Timbers try to continue their run toward the top of the Western Conference.