Yes, there were things to be encouraged about. The second-half fightback and the performance of Lucas Melano, in particular, are real positives from the draw.
But in the end the Timbers drew a game at home that they should have won. And at this point of the season in a Western Conference race as tight as any in recent memory, that’s a major letdown.
Here are three questions from the Timbers’ draw with Houston:
1. Did the ghost of 2014 haunt the Timbers locker room on Friday?
On Friday evening the Timbers had a fair share of the ball and created the bulk of the chances, but shipped two first-half goals to the Dynamo and went into the locker room with a mountain to climb. Thanks to the second-half effort the Timbers made it to the summit, but didn’t have enough left to plant their flag on all three points.
It should. Because that was Portland’s MO for much of the early and middle portion of 2014 in which they scored plenty of goals at home, but couldn’t come away with results.
And many of the same bad tactical habits that sunk the Timbers’ early home form in 2014 resurfaced on Friday evening. Throughout the spring and summer of 2014 the Timbers struggled with both defensive-midfield and fullback balance, often exposing the centerbacks to attacks with much of their defensive help caught upfield.
So it was on Friday.
On the Timbers’ first concession, after a poorly played Liam Ridgewell headed clearance fell to Boniek Garcia, the Honduran international and Will Briun isolated Ridgewell and played a one-two back to Garcia in the box where Boniek slotted underneath an onrushing Adam Kwarasey. Why were Boniek and Bruin able to so easily isolate Ridgewell? Jorge Villafana was nowhere to be seen and Will Johnson was slow to recognize Ridgewell’s vulnerability.
The second concession was even more dramatic.
The sequence starts with Rodney Wallace picking the ball up in midfield and straying into a central position from his usual spot on the left wing. Diego Chara is upfield, but Villafana and Johnson are both behind the ball, so, at this moment in possession, the Timbers aren’t exposed defensively.
But Wallace is dispossessed after a clean challenge by Luis Garrido, and by the time this happens both Villafana and Johnson have floated upfield. This is poor awareness from both Johnson and Villafana because Chara is still in an advanced position. Johnson is especially guilty here, as needs to be aware of where his defensive-midfield partner is and make sure they don’t get caught chasing the ball at the same time. But with a defensive midfielder upfield Villafana also needs to be more judicious in deciding when to bomb on.
Simply put, by this time the Timbers are in a world of hurt.
And, if it wasn’t already, that becomes apparent in this next frame. After Brad Davis picks up the ball centrally, it becomes clear that Ridgewell has been hung out to dry. Without any support coming from the defensive midfield, Ridgewell has to step to Davis or the American international can waltz to the top of the box with myriad options. Bruin - who is, for his flaws, a very smart player - is only looking at one thing here: Ridgewell. Bruin knows the Timbers’ centerback has to step, and when he does Bruin is going to immediately run in behind him.
That’s exactly what happens, as Davis plays Bruin through. Villafana is too late recovering to provide any genuine challenge to Bruin. The Dancing Bear picks up Davis’s pass and finds the far post past Kwarasey, who, although the camera angle may be deceptive in this respect, appears to be overprotecting his near post relative to Bruin’s angle.
But the real problem here was the Timbers losing balance with both Johnson and Villafana roaming forward immediately before the turnover. Although the turnover itself wasn’t ideal, the whole point of tactical balance is to be in a position to not be exposed if something like that happens. Johnson and Villafana unwisely stretched the Timbers out of balance, which turned out to be a fatal mistake.
This is exactly the kind of thing we saw over and over in 2014, but, to this point, haven’t seen too much in 2015. And, although this Timbers backline is much better than the 2014 version, even a good backline isn’t going to bail out upfield mistakes like this every time.
2. Why aren’t the Timbers executing in the final third?
The Timbers’ drop in goalscoring production in 2015 is certainly multifactorial. Unlike 2013 and 2014, the Timbers have received almost no goalscoring production from their wingers this year. And Diego Valeri’s injury and slow build back into form hasn’t helped.
But, aside from these personnel issues, the simple fact is that the Timbers’ final-third execution has been inconsistent, and on Friday that was apparent in what should have been two prime goalscoring opportunities.
In the 19th minute Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace combined nicely off of a free kick to work Wallace in behind the Dynamo defense.
Wallace here has three options that fall on various points of the spectrum of good. First, he can send the ball across goal toward Ridgewell at the far post (with the possibility that Borchers can also get there at the near post). Second, Rodney can cut the ball back slightly and look to find Borchers where he is posting up near the top of the six-yard box. Finally, Wallace can cut the ball deeper into the box to find Melano ten yards from the mouth of goal.
David Horst is doing a nice job of making the first two options at least difficult. Wallace could take a touch toward the byline to force Horst to commit, but by then Ridgewell’s run is likely spent. But the cutback to Melano is there with Melano clearly looking for it, and a well-placed ball looks like it could put the youngster in a spot in which he has a nice bit of goal to look at.
But Wallace didn’t do any of these things. Instead he fired
at wide of a near post that was fully covered by a good shot-stopping goalkeeper in Tyler Deric. In the end, therefore, Wallace took what could have been a very dangerous, simple ball (granted, one that he would have had to play with his right foot), and turned it into an all-but-hopeless hit toward a covered near post.
That’s bad execution.
But it’s not always the player on the ball that makes the biggest final-third execution mistake. Shortly after Melano drew the Timbers level, Fanendo Adi found himself alone on the ball behind the defense from a wide angle.
Adi here does the right thing - drive toward goal and the byline. Raul Rodriguez is stumbling after Adi, which has forced Horst to turn his attention toward and respond to Adi. Simply put, the entire Dynamo backline that is part of this play is running toward the byline because that’s where Adi’s going.
Do you see that orange circle I drew for you? The important thing to know about that circle is that there aren’t any Dynamo players in it. If Melano stops running then he’s in all the space he could ever want. Add in a simple cutback by Adi and a semi-competent finish by Melano and it’s 3-2.
But Melano keeps running. And that basically ruins the whole sequence. Adi’s angle was always tight and Asprilla was always covered backpost. The odds of either of them having a viable look at goal during this sequence have been low from the beginning. But because Melano didn’t break off his run and sit into the hole toward the top of the box he essentially allowed himself to be defended by Horst. And so went the Timbers’ biggest goalscoring threat. In the end, Adi (I like to think out of frustration) kicked the ball into the side netting.
Again, bad execution.
Granted, not every box entry is going to be perfectly executed. And you can look through even the most potent attacking games and find situations that could have been executed better.
But here’s the thing: LA Galaxy don’t botch the chances that the Timbers failed to execute on Friday. And if that’s the level that the Timbers aspire to, they have to improve in situations like these.
3. Why are the Timbers so bad in the first half of games?
I’m not sure why, but they definitely are.
The Timbers have a goal difference of minus-six in the first half of games in 2015, which is third worst in MLS. The culprit? The Timbers can’t score before halftime, lodging just 7 goals before intermission. That's last in MLS.
This isn’t a reversal of fortunes under Caleb Porter’s Timbers teams per se, but it is an exacerbation of a trend from 2013 and 2014. In 2013 the Timbers were plus-three (out of a +21 overall GD) before halftime while scoring 20 of their 54 total goals in the first half. In 2014 the Timbers had a minus-two goal difference (out of a +9 overall GD) in the first half while scoring a middling 22 of 61 total goals before halftime.
So Porter’s Timbers have never been great before the break. But this year they’re downright bad.
This is worth keeping an eye on in what now looks like it could be a nervy final eight games.