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Three Questions from the Timbers’ 0-0 Draw at San Jose

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The Timbers’ 0-0 draw in San Jose on Sunday was three things: Boring, frustrating, and reason for hope.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Well, there wasn’t much exciting about that.

In a game that was often slow and sloppy, the Portland Timbers and San Jose Earthquakes played to a stalemate at Avaya Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

The Timbers created a fair number of chances, including a Diego Valeri penalty, a Fanendo Adi shot from the right side of the box, and a Lucas Melano flick at the face of goal, but couldn’t find the finishing touch. From an attacking perspective, then, the Timbers weren’t exactly hapless, but were ultimately empty-handed.

But the attack (although far from prodigious) hasn’t been the problem on the road. Rather, it’s been the defense that has been the primary cause of the Timbers’ road form devolving from solid to shambolic.

And on Sunday night the Timbers took a step in the right direction in that respect.

Here are three questions from the Timbers’ draw in San Jose:

1. Is this the start of the Timbers’ righting their defensive ship away from Providence Park?

There is no question what objective number one was for the Timbers on Sunday afternoon: Shore up their defense.

The last three away games, in particular, had been devastating for the Timbers’ defense, conceding 12 goals on the way to three humiliating losses. To put that number in perspective, the Timbers conceded only double that number (24) in 17 away matches in 2014.

So the Timbers came into San Jose looking to reestablish the defensive fortitude that allowed them to stay in enough road games to knick more than their fair share of results on the road in 2013, 2014, and early 2015.

In that respect Sunday afternoon was a mission accomplished, even if the ultimate result wasn’t perfect.

The Timbers started a little bit shaky on the defensive side in an opening stretch of the first half in which they yielded a handful of half chances and one good opportunity for Chris Wondolowski through on goal (that Adam Kwarasey saved well), but grew into the game as the half went along. By the second half, Portland had reduced a once-dangerous Quakes attack to an outfit hoping for a moment of set-piece magic.

A big part of the Timbers’ defensive success on Sunday was the defensive commitment shown by the wingers, especially Rodney Wallace. In the opening stretch of the game that commitment - primarily from Darlington Nagbe - wasn’t entirely there. Although Nagbe wasn’t exactly hanging Alvas Powell out to dry, he also wasn’t actively getting stuck in. Accordingly, despite San Jose almost myopically attacking the Timbers’ right side, Portland’s attackers had few defensive actions in that area.

But the Quakes (somewhat surprisingly) went away from attacking the Timbers’ right flank after that opening stretch. And despite trying their luck down the Timbers’ left side in the second half, San Jose found that way was largely shut.

The reason was, in large part, Rodney Wallace was very actively defensively, covering Jorge Villafana and making it difficult for San Jose to break Portland down and consistently earn anything better than a deep cross. Here are the Timbers’ attacking midfielders’ defensive actions:

Compare that to the Timbers’ attacking midfielders’ defensive actions against Philadelphia and Dallas:

The difference between these charts isn’t subtle - against San Jose the Timbers’ got much more defending out of their wingers in and around the box than they did against Dallas and Philadelphia. The result was fewer one-v-one situations around the Timbers’ box and, in the end, a much better overall defensive performance.

The question, however, will ultimately be whether the Timbers can continue to perform like this defensively on the road. That, of course, remains to be seen. But this team has done it in the past and did it again on Sunday.

2. In light of the defensive performance, how should Timbers’ fans feel about this result?

There’s no question that in the short term this is a frustrating draw for the Timbers. Simply put, with three clear chances (including a penalty) the Timbers were the more dangerous team in a game in which neither side was particularly lethal.

So to come away from Avaya Stadium with only one point is a disappointment. Three points on Sunday would have been handy and, on balance, they were attainable.

But the point the Timbers earned isn’t a bad one. With as much parity as there is in MLS, almost any point on the road is a solid point. The Timbers are a more talented team than San Jose, but, like most of the rest of the league, not by leaps and bounds.

More importantly, however, the performance provides some reason for hope down the road.

Simply put, the Timbers had to fix their critical road defensive woes. While the attack has been far from potent, if Portland continued to ship multiple goals per outing away from home, it wouldn’t much matter if the Timbers were finding the back of the net consistently.

What many forget about Portland’s road performances in 2013 and 2014 is that they were not all pretty. In fact, many of those games in which the Timbers earned good results played out more or less like the game in San Jose on Sunday: The Timbers managed the game well, were defensively solid, and were opportunistic enough to find the goal that they needed.

Portland did two of those three things on Sunday, which is exactly two more than the Timbers have done over the last several weeks.

So Caleb Porter’s focus on defensive integrity this week makes a lot of sense. And, even if the short-term feeling from Sunday’s result is one of frustration, the hope that can be derived from the Timbers’ defensive performance on Sunday should give the Timbers reason to believe away outings even against good teams are not a lost cause.

3. When will the Timbers get peak Diego Valeri back?

Diego Valeri put in a fair performance on Sunday.

The first half wasn’t great, but, on the whole, the second half was a little bit better.

Well, except for the missed penalty.

It’s clear Valeri still hasn’t fully found his rhythm coming off his ACL recovery at the beginning of the year and a sprained ankle that set him back another month shortly thereafter.

This isn’t altogether surprising; Valeri was only good coming off his offseason hernia surgery before 2014 before turning into one of the two or three best players in MLS from the summer onward.

As Caleb Porter noted after the game, the Timbers have 11 games left in the 2015 regular season. And although Porter noted that by way of expressing confidence in Valeri that the Maestro would win them some games at some point along the finishing stretch of 2015, his statement perhaps inadvertently underscored the fact that there are only 11 games left in the regular season.

Which is to say the Timbers need to start seeing peak Valeri sooner rather than later. Because the Timbers showed on Sunday that they can be competitive on the road. That, combined with being good at home, may be enough to get the Timbers into the playoffs.

But it won’t be enough to make them anything other than also-rans once the playoffs come around. If the Timbers want to do more than make a cameo - which I believe they can - they’ll need their attack to start firing on all cylinders.

And that requires peak Valeri.