Actual points or style points?
That’s been a constant debate in Portland for the last three years.
In 2013 the Timbers earned both on the way to the Western Conference title in a season in which they, along with Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City, set a standard for successful, possession-based soccer in MLS.
In 2014 the Timbers were long on style points, but fell short on substance as the rest of MLS adjusted to the possession-based dominance of 2013 and countered the Timbers into elimination in the regular season.
In 2015 the pendulum has swung the other way, as the Timbers have made their adjustment, cast style points out the window (especially on the road), and through 25 games have put themselves in position to be competitive in the West.
And so it was on Saturday evening, as the Timbers were sloppy, pragmatic, and victorious all at once. Here are three questions from the Timbers’ 1-0 win in Salt Lake City:
1. So were the Timbers pragmatic on Saturday night or bad (and a little lucky)?
Both. Though not necessarily at the same time.
Let’s start with a simple statistic: The Timbers 35.3% possession percentage on Saturday was their lowest of any game in the Porter Era.
In the first half on Saturday the Timbers were poor, as they repeatedly coughed up the ball in their own half and set Real Salt Lake up for chance after chance. Before halftime on Saturday the Timbers completed only 80.3% of their passes in their own half (worst for a first half in 2015) with 13 such passes going awry (tied for 2nd most for a 1st half in 2015).
As a result RSL had tons of action in and around the box and created nine chances (many of which were quite clear).
By all rights the Timbers should have been punished for their sloppiness before halftime. But, thanks to some shoddy RSL finishing and timely interventions from Adam Kwarasey, Liam Ridgewell, and Nat Borchers, Portland escaped to the locker room in a flattering scoreless draw.
The Timbers, though, were tidier out of the back in the second half with only seven own-half incompletions. Tidiness notwithstanding, however, the line of confrontation and possession percentage remained largely the same.
But don’t let those similarities deceive you; the Timbers’ were orders of magnitude better out of the locker room. Whereas RSL had swarms of possession around the box in the first half, the Timbers did a much better job of pushing RSL out and toward the touchline in the second. As a result, the Timbers only conceded five chances created in the second half (when RSL was pushing hardest to find the goal) compared to nine in the first.
And the Timbers came to life on the other end, too. After creating next to nothing before intermission, the Timbers were by far the more dangerous team after the break, with only a peak-Rimando-level save on Diego Valeri and a Sebastian Saucedo clearance off the line keeping things level heading into stoppage time.
And then Nat Borchers struck.
But the point is this: The first half was poor, and in many ways was the continuation of a troubling trend of sloppiness from the Timbers in recent weeks. The second half, on the other hand, was a matter of the Timbers looking to counter an increasingly desperate, tired RSL team.
And in doing so the Timbers turned a game that they should have been trailing by multiple goals into a match that they deservedly won.
2. Is Diego Valeri starting to find his form?
It’s hard to know for sure, but Valeri is starting to find his way into games a bit better than he was a few weeks ago. After a strong second half against Chicago last weekend, Valeri again struggled in the early going against RSL before becoming the best player on the field over the course of the last 50 minutes.
Here is Valeri’s distribution chart over the first 40 minutes on Saturday:
It doesn’t take an Opta expert to tell you that’s not very good. And, for what it’s worth, two of those are set pieces.
But here is Valeri over the course of the final 50 minutes in Salt Lake:
That’s much better.
Even if it is taking some time, Valeri is starting to work his way into becoming a primary playmaking force in games. And it couldn’t come at a better time for the Timbers.
Although Portland has done a nice job of scratching out results in Valeri’s (literal and qualitative) absence, the offensive stats are a major cause for concern. 26 goals in 25 games is flat out bad. Bad enough, in fact, that a league-leading 11 shutouts is little comfort when it comes to projecting the Timbers’ prospects in the playoffs.
Valeri rounding into form is the Timbers' best hope for improving their goalscoring potency and becoming more than a mere playoff qualifier. And if the second halves against Chicago and Salt Lake are any indication, that might be starting to happen.
3. So where does this leave the Timbers in the table?
Well, it’s a little bit complicated.
Although the Timbers sit in fourth in the West, they are only a point ahead of a Dallas team that has two games in hand on Portland. So, for all intents and purposes, the Timbers are still fifth in the West after beating RSL on Saturday.
But the gap is beginning to open beneath them. The same-as-it-ever-was quotient currently stands at eight points, as the Timbers have put considerable space between themselves and the red line. And even the 6th-place Seattle Sounders can’t come any closer than within four points of the Timbers with a win over Orlando City on Sunday.
In addition, with a home fixture against Houston upcoming next Friday, the Timbers have an opportunity to put the red line well in the rear-view mirror this upcoming weekend.
But, with the fifth and sixth seeds facing an away do-or-die game in the first round of the playoffs, earning one of the top four seeds is paramount. With Sporting Kansas City, Vancouver Whitecaps, LA Galaxy, and FC Dallas all still above the Timbers on points per game, it is clear that Caleb Porter and his team still have considerable work to do to give themselves a genuine chance of advancing in the playoffs.